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Think Like a Rocket Scientist: A Q&A with Ozan Varol

Build a culture where new ideas are encouraged and failures are considered part of the innovation process.

A man leaning against a column in front of a building.

W​hile working on the successful Mars Exploration Rovers project, Ozan Varol experienced firsthand how rocket scientists at NASA thought and worked to achieve goals that once seemed like science fiction.

In his book Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life (PublicAffairs, 2020), Varol explains how individuals and entire organizations can begin to think like rocket scientists and achieve long-term success. The book has been recommended by thought leaders Susan Cain, Bill Gates, Adam Grant and others.

Varol stresses that one of the keys to successful “rocket science thinking” at an organizational level is building a culture where new ideas are encouraged and failures, provided they’re arrived at intelligently and can be learned from, are considered part of the innovation process.

“You don’t tolerate sloppy failures,” he says. “But intelligent failures, especially when working on new products or innovations, should be embraced because failure is part of the game.”

Currently a professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., as well as a consultant and speaker, Varol says even companies that don’t have the budget for “moonshot thinking,” or ambitious plans to accomplish the seemingly impossible, can still take some intelligent risks.

“As long as your overall portfolio is balanced, one moonshot that does take off is going to more than pay for the ideas that didn’t work,” he says.

Can a rocket scientist mindset be instilled in any organization’s culture? How can HR help make that happen?

You do not have to be a rocket scientist to think like one. Any business, from solo entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 companies, can really benefit from that mindset. HR can play a key role in bringing about this thinking through hiring, training and performance reviews.

The Silicon Valley mantra “Fail fast, fail often” does not really work, because when people fail quickly, they don’t learn and fix their mistakes. From a rocket science perspective, the goal should be to learn fast. That message can be delivered by HR by encouraging people to take healthy risks and make intelligent failures.

Should HR seek to hire people trained in mathematics or other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields because of how they’re taught to think and problem-solve, even if the company is not focused on technology or science?

Definitely. Hiring outside of your industry is often helpful because outsiders have a way of questioning assumptions that experts too close to the problem may not see. It also can lead to the cross-pollination of ideas that can lead to greatness.

In your book, you cite the importance of extensive training, noting that astronauts train for years before spending a relatively short time in space. Should organizations put more emphasis on training before staff actually step into their roles?

Yes, provided it is the right type of training. The concept “test as you fly, fly as you test” emphasizes making training as similar to the job as possible. Just as astronaut training simulates space flights, training should not consist of lectures and videos, but rather it should put people in positions they will face in the job.

Why is it important for the C-suite to work with HR to ensure that everyone from the CEO down is intimately knowledgeable about most key operations?

The leader of a large organization cannot be everywhere. But there is a lot of value in having management “get their hands dirty” by periodically engaging the rank-and-file employees who are experts at what they do. Failure to do that is the reason why both the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia space shuttle disasters happened. When engineers voiced concern, they were ignored. That disconnect can be really dangerous.

How can an organization shake off a risk-averse approach and incentivize workers to provide new ideas even if they may not initially work?

One thing companies should not do is hold one retreat each year where people share new ideas and then go back to business as usual. That’s not how to build an organizational culture around innovation. Management—and HR can help with this—should reinforce the message that it wants people to err intelligently. The way to do that is to build psychological safety so people are comfortable airing their ideas.

How can HR professionals benefit from thinking like a rocket scientist?

Expand your time horizon to achieve personal goals. Scientific history has shown that all breakthroughs are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Even Einstein’s first several proofs for E=MC2 failed. Extending your time horizon from, say, next month to next year can take the sting out of any initial failure.

“Backcasting,” or working backward from a desired outcome, is another effective tool. NASA did that during the Apollo era. The goal was landing on the moon, but numerous steps had to be done to get there—working outside a spacecraft, docking the spacecraft, circling the moon without landing. Breaking it down to its smallest subcomponents makes each step far less intimidating. 

Interview by David Ward, a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

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