I’m delighted to share this guest piece by US astronaut Col. Ron Garan. Ron spent 178 days in space on board the International Space Station (ISS), travelling 71 million miles in orbit. Ron has the unique distinction of being the only TED speaker to give a talk from outer space.
Thanks to the time he spent in space looking down at our planet Earth, Ron developed a deeper appreciation for what he calls “the orbital perspective” and how this vantage point can help us tap into our innate sense of empathy and connecting with others to break down barriers – whether between teams, departments, or even nations – in order to combine our collective experiences and insights to build a better future for all.
In the piece below, Ron looks back at the US-Russian partnership behind the International Space Station program and what it reveals about what we stand to gain by tapping into the power of we.
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I recently attended a national summit on infrastructure at the Harvard Business School. One of the speakers, Senator Barbara Mikulski, told a story about how every month the women of the senate — Democrats and Republicans — meet for dinner.
They meet without staff, without memos, and without the normal overhead that comes with political meetings in Washington. The dinners are designed to be all about relationships and listening. The idea is to create an atmosphere in which the senators do not judge each other.
Senator Mikulski felt this to be a very powerful tool to break down barriers to cooperation and to provide a common ground that will serve as the relational foundation for working together. This is a great worm’s eye view strategy, especially in this case, because the strategy has the power to overturn misconceptions, and in the extreme, to reduce the likelihood that one side will demonize the other.
When we pull back to the orbital perspective, we look not just at a group of people trying to make a difference but also at organizations, nongovernment organizations, and nations that can do the same. When we step back, the things that we share in common become more visible.
If demonization, misunderstanding, and misconceptions can be overturned, common ground can be found, and that common ground can serve as a bridge toward the solutions to the challenges we all face.
As these senate dinners demonstrate, the first step to building collaboration with people and groups with whom you disagree, whose opinion differs from your own, is to find the common ground. It is important to use the easy things to prove that it’s possible to work together, that it’s possible to set aside the real and perceived differences that keep you apart.
The International Space Station program is a good example of the power of finding the common ground. The United States and Russia were Cold War competitors, both philosophically and doctrinally, but by doing something compelling, meaningful, and important together, the two nations were able to rise above their competitive inclinations and work together for a common cause.
As a fighter pilot during the Cold War, I trained for years to fight the Russians, but on April 4, 2011, I stood at the base of a Soyuz rocket named Gagarin, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight.
As my two Russian crewmates and I waited to depart from the same launchpad Gagarin had used in 1961, I looked up and saw an American flag painted on the rocket — a compelling example of the transformative power of finding common ground.
As we’ve seen, one of the key ingredients of successful U.S.– Russian collaboration on the International Space Station program was trust, beginning with the building of strong personal relationships. The joint program in space didn’t begin with agreements and plans to build an enormous orbiting research facility.
Instead, to establish trust, the two sides agreed to intermediate steps that had less riding on them — sending astronauts and cosmonauts up in each other’s vehicles, for instance, or undertaking a relatively simple docking maneuver — so that the failure of either side to live up to its agreements had a lower cost. If the partnership didn’t work out, future collaborations could be easily shelved.
The Shuttle–Mir program required less time, resources, and effort than would be dedicated to building the ISS, and the cost of not living up to agreements rose exponentially with the ISS, which required significant investments of billions of dollars.
Before undertaking the ISS, therefore, it was absolutely critical not only to have a proof of concept for the technical aspects of the partnership but also to have a demonstration of ongoing trust, so that all the international partners knew the others could be trusted to deliver what they promised.
One of the main things gained through established trust is a team’s improved agility. Organizations that have built a foundation of trust will be able to handle unexpected or critical situations much faster and more effectively.
On the other hand, teams that don’t trust their team members to make decisions will attempt to spread the responsibility for decisions as widely as possible, and they will not act until they feel comfortable. The time it takes to move forward when a partner is making a decision is inversely proportional to the level of trust established in the partnership.
Therefore, another critical aspect of the maturing ISS partnership was that, as trust was gradually established, more and more authority and responsibility was given to the various ISS partners. After relationships are formed and trustworthiness and competence are demonstrated, an important component of true collaboration is this kind of shared control. It is important to recognize the value that partners bring to the table, and to step back and let them bring it to the table.
At the beginning of the ISS partnership, many at NASA did not appreciate what the Russians brought to the table, and vice versa. By working together incrementally, however, both sides came to see that different does not mean inferior.
The two sides also learned that although team members may be unable to do something that you can do, they still can provide value. In fact, it is equally likely that they bring something that you can’t, and thereby enrich the partnership deeply, as was the case among all the ISS partners.
Achieving this kind of trust, of course, requires team members or their leaders to share or even give up some control. True collaboration is not possible in an entirely authoritarian, command-and-control environment.
Sometimes putting the overarching goals of the partnership above individual goals leads to working in ways you didn’t plan and with which you may not feel comfortable, but the demonstrated ability to undertake the partnership anyway goes a long way toward solidifying collaboration on both sides.
Another great advantage of trusting a partner’s judgment and ability is that it builds redundancy into the process, which may help prevent a single mishap from taking down the entire project.
In designing spacecraft, engineers try to avoid situations in which the failure of a single component would cause loss of the ship, crew, or mission, and the best collaborative solutions likewise should not contain single point failures or depend solely on a particular individual or organization to ensure success.
The best collaborations stand the test of time as individuals and organizations come and go.
Col. Ron Garan (USAF ret.) is a decorated NASA astronaut, test pilot, aquanaut, and entrepreneur. He is also the author of “The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles”. Ron is the founder of the nonprofit social enterprise incubator Manna Energy Foundation and Fragile Oasis, an effort to use the orbital perspective to inspire positive social and environmental action. To learn more about Ron’s work, visit his website at orbitalperspective.com. You can also follow him on Twitter – @astro_ron.
Reprinted with permission from The Orbital Perspective, by Ron Garan, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015 www.bkconnection.com.
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