Can Rocket Science Prevent Herd Thinking?

January 31, 2020 Sarah Payne

7-minute read

Think Like a Rocket Scientist

It doesn’t take rocket science to run an HR organization – or does it?

Ozan Varol, author of the forthcoming book, “Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life,” spoke at the Workhuman® Executive Forum in Boston, Mass. last fall. A rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and author, Ozan challenged the audience of HR executives to think like contrarians in their day-to-day work and gave practical advice for systematically questioning the status quo when it comes to deeply ingrained HR processes and reward strategies.

I had the opportunity to chat with Ozan after the forum about the lessons that can be learned from some of rocket science’s biggest successes and disasters and why it can be so difficult to speak your mind in an organization that rewards herd thinking.

Read part one of this exclusive interview below.

Workhuman: What inspired you to write your new book, “Think Like a Rocket Scientist”?

Ozan: As long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with space travel. I majored in astrophysics in college and served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which sent two rovers to Mars. It ended up being one of the most successful interplanetary missions of all time. We designed the rovers to last for just 90 days, but one of the two rovers, Opportunity, ended up lasting for 15 years, which is just incredible.

I really enjoyed my time on that mission, but I didn't want to get a PhD in astrophysics, so I went to law school and later became a law professor. I brought with me the insights on critical thinking and creativity that I got from rocket science. And since then, my goal has been to share what I learned and empower other people to dream big and actively shape a rapidly evolving world – in other words, to think like a rocket scientist. The book is a culmination of that lifelong journey. I'm really excited for it to come out in April.

The book is available for pre-order now. If you pre-order the book, you’ll get immediate digital access to read on your favorite device, along with other bonuses.

Workhuman: Why do you think this book needed now?

Ozan: In 1962 John F. Kennedy stepped up to a podium at Rice University and pledged to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade was out. At the time, we knew so little about space travel that some of the metals required to build the rockets hadn't even been invented. Yet, within seven years of that promise, Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. The ability to imagine the unimaginable and solve the unsolvable is really inspirational.

The other thing that I love to think about is the Wright brothers took their first powered flight in 1903. Someone who was 6 years old when the Wright brothers took their flight would have been 72 when flight became powerful enough to send a person to the moon and bring him back. That's an astonishing speed at which that technology developed. And we tend to think of that as the triumph of technology, but it's not. It's the triumph of a certain thought process that turned the seemingly impossible into the possible.

Society has conditioned us to pursue smaller dreams. We've been told that big dreams are dangerous. Rocket scientists are dreamers, and I love that about them. That's part of what I wanted to bring into the book was that inspirational element of rocket science as well, but also pair it with concrete strategies of actually making those dreams a reality.

Today, thinking like a rocket scientist is a necessity. We all encounter complex and unfamiliar problems in our lives. Those who can tackle these problems – without clear guidelines and with the clock ticking – enjoy an extraordinary advantage.

Workhuman: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

Ozan: I'm an introvert. I spend a lot of my time traveling and speaking before huge audiences, but that engagement, as much as I love it, is also a very extroverted way of living.

One of my favorite books is Susan Cain's "Quiet." It's actually what inspired me to start writing books for mainstream audiences back when I read it, maybe seven or eight years ago. I was at a law professor conference, and networking with other law professors was draining. Every now and then during the conference I would rush to my hotel room just to take a breather and read sections from her book. That's when the seed was planted, that academic writing wasn't the end-all and be-all for me, that I could also do popular writing.

Workhuman: What’s the best example you can think of that demonstrates the danger of herd thinking?

Ozan: Two examples come to mind, which are the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters.

The Challenger disaster happened in 1986. Tragically, all seven astronauts on board died. And the Rogers Commission, which was convened to investigate the accident, found that the technical flaw was in the O-rings. The O-rings are like rubber bands that seal to prevent hot gases from escaping, and they tend to turn brittle in cold temperatures. On the day of Challenger's launch, the temperatures at Cape Canaveral were really low. The night before, they had dipped below freezing.

Several engineers raised their hands and recommended a delay of the launch, but management overruled them. Everybody else just went along with the herd, and catastrophe happened.

With the Columbia disaster, it was a different technical flaw – a piece of foam that separated from the shuttle during launch and damaged the shuttle's thermal insulation, which is responsible for protecting the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Again, a number of engineers raised their hands and said, ‘This damage looks pretty bad. We should ask the Pentagon to re-route one of its spy satellites to investigate the accident.’ Again, management overruled the request. Once again, catastrophe struck.

Sally Ride, the NASA astronaut who served on the investigation board for both accidents, memorably said, ‘You could hear Challenger's echoes in the Columbia disaster.’ Even after the technical flaws had been fixed, the deeper cultural flaws remained. NASA didn't just have an O-ring problem. NASA also had a conformity problem.

Workhuman: I don’t think many people – especially individual contributors or middle managers – feel comfortable being a contrarian in the workplace. Why is that?

Ozan: One of the engineers, Roger Boisjoly, testified before the Rogers Commission and turned over all of these documents showing that his warning had fallen on deaf ears before the Challenger disaster. He was chastised by his colleagues and managers for airing the company's dirty laundry before the public. He was eventually pushed out of the company that had built the boosters where the O-ring problem originated.

When there's a danger of facing that sort of backlash from superiors and colleagues, it makes sense that people don’t speak up. 

No one likes to be the skunk at the picnic, the lone holdout pounding their fist at the table. Skunks, like messengers, have a habit of getting shot. So groupthink ends up popping up even in organizations like NASA whose lifeblood is creativity.

Faced with potential backlash, we censor ourselves rather than go against the grain. We conform rather than contradict. Organizational culture is a big part of it, and some of it also has to do with our genetics. We're wired to conform. There's a huge evolutionary advantage to following orders and behaving like your peers. Our ancestors who didn't conform were chastised and ostracized, or, worse, left for dead.

On top of that, the genetic wiring gets reinforced in our educational system, where you're taught from an early age to color between the lines and use number two pencils. There are so many factors that reinforce our tendency to conform. You then bring those factors into an organization where there's potential backlash for going against the grain, and you end up with a disaster.

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About the Author

Sarah Payne

Sarah is managing editor at Workhuman. When not writing about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughter, Mabel.

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