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Critical Knowledge inSight: Beware of Complacency

Complacency has a way of lulling us as individuals and organizations into accepting the status quo and limits our ability to investigate unfamiliar and uncharted territory. John Kotter, renowned leadership expert and author of the 1996 book “Leading Change,” said the biggest enemy to change is complacency, which he described as becoming satisfied with our current results and unaware of how the known and predictable erode performance.

In this video, William Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, discusses the dangers that complacency can cause on a mission or project. He discusses a specific example where water entered an astronaut’s space helmet during a spacewalk and caused a dangerous situation. The same problem with water in the helmet had been studied on the ground and was deemed to not be a large hazard. Water had also entered astronaut helmets on previous spacewalks, but did not raise much concern. The operating environment in space had changed the effect that water inside the helmet could have on an astronaut.



  1. 1.

    Learn from close calls – stay hungry to learn and test – and don’t let small failures go without a thorough examination to learn from them

  2. 2.

    Test in many different environments and look for ways to test in the same environment in which you will be working.

  3. 3.

    Relook at situations you are very comfortable with to find new potential issues.

  4. 4.

    Keep learning when things are working well and going smoothly.


Dangerous issues in high-risk environments can occur during times when it seems that everything is going smoothly. It would be a wise practice to use these “smooth sailing” times to continue learning and examining work. The extra learning and examination will build capability to handle future problems that arise.

Related Resources:

Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects

NASA Safety Center System Failure Case Studies

Challenging Complacency

Lessons Learned Information System Search Query for Accident Investigation

NASA APPEL Case Studies

NASA Goddard Case Studies


Critical Knowledge inSight is a new series of articles highlighting information to help practitioners identify and overcome obstacles that interfere with mission success. Each article focuses on a critical knowledge topic and features knowledge insight through a short video clip with subject matter experts sharing information needed to solve problems and drive innovation. Articles include a brief summary of key learning points gleaned from the expert’s insight along with related resources, such as case studies, courses and lessons learned, to further explore the topic and provide you with quick-hitting, targeted learning to enhance your knowledge base.

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