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Intuition, Rationality, and Launch Decisions

The Space Shuttle Discovery approaches the International Space Station for docking but before the link-up occurred, the orbiter "posed" for a thorough series of inspection photos.

Photo Credit: NASA

The power of pausing can help us move forward to mission success.

In 2012, Charlie Rose interviewed Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and best-selling psychologist who specializes in how we make decisions. While discussing his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman shared with Rose that he recognized something about himself: “When I have opinions, I’m sure they’re right, but I have had enough experience to know I am overconfident… so the feeling of overconfidence is there, but if it matters, I can slow myself down and become more reasonable.” According to Kahneman’s work, “thinking fast” is System One, and “thinking slow” is System Two. From Kahneman’s example of knowing something about himself, when he engages in slowing his thinking down, he is becoming more rational, thus engaged in System Two, which has as one of its two functions the supervising of one’s own behavior. System One is aligned with faster decisions, such as performing simple math, driving, exchanging pleasantries with coworkers, and even “following your gut” or intuition; we are living in System One most of the time. We often have to be conscious of taking our time to make time for System Two.

In the world of Knowledge Management, there is much talk of taking time to reflect. Reflecting can take on the meaning of what Kahneman is sharing with Rose: looking at oneself in order to understand oneself, metaphorically how we may examine ourselves in a mirror’s reflection. We also use “reflect back on” specifically to mean to remember something. The activity of trying to remember something often physically slows us down. Our stride walking down the street might decrease while we try to recall whether or not we turned off the oven, locked a door, or if we left out an important step in a longer process.

One of the knowledge activities here at NASA that fits into this idea of reflection is “Pause and Learn” (PaL), its methodology adapted from the U.S. Army’s After-Action-Review (AAR). Unlike an AAR which is conducted after an action or project, a PaL can be conducted throughout a project’s life cycle. Like an AAR, a PaL can assist to bridge the gap between individual learning and team learning; it is a time for reflecting among team members. At NASA, the PaL methodology was initially implemented within Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) through its Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer and has been shared widely within NASA as an agency.

While Dr. Ed Rogers, Chief Knowledge Officer at GSFC, did not visit Glenn Research Center recently to facilitate a PaL, he did lead a knowledge sharing workshop centering on his case study “Eyes Wide Open” In The Launch Decision Process to engage the knowledge practitioners at GRC in what Kahneman would most definitely call System Two thinking about a launch decision, which itself is System Two. During his workshop, Rogers created an open environment to discuss lessons that could be learned from the case study, not just its technical challenges or the decision to launch or not. Several participants attending the workshop openly reflected on their possible approaches to meeting similar future challenges. The context of the case study reinforced the activities and initiative of NASA’s knowledge services: case stories, such the one used, demonstrated—with help from a live dial-in from Chris Scolese, Director of GSFC—that case studies (and workshops) are the ideal vehicles to carry knowledge sharing into NASA’s growing learning culture. As Rogers’ Building a Healthy Learning Organization at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center states: “Documented case stories provide a context for key players to present material, reflect on project management insights, and share contextual knowledge in a meaningful way.”

The crux of the Charlie Rose’s interview of Daniel Kahneman centered on balancing System One and System Two. “There is actually enormous resistance I think within organizations to implementing programs that would improve the rationality of their decisions,” states Kahneman. “When it comes to implementation, enthusiasm wanes distinctly because you are naked.” Rose and Kahneman eagerly shared their thoughts on how best to promote rationality within organizations, how to prevent mistakes, insisting on rationality but not allowing paralysis. Although the two men discussed how a few firms—like venture capitalists—created processes that gleaned returns on investments, Kahneman summarized that it was finding that ideal mix of intuition and reasoning. “It’s a complicated process, very difficult,” concluded Kahneman, “and very few people have done it.”

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