More lessons from the Russian space programme

In my blog of August 31st 2012 – “Why make it complicated: a lesson from the Russian space programme” – I talked about how the engineers on the programme, lacking the funds of their US rivals, had to resort to ingenious mixtures of high and low tech in order to get results (the August post has a link to the BBC report if you are interested). The examples show how having fewer resources can lead to a greater focus on the required result, without adding distracting peripheral features. You get a lot more bang for your rouble.

What about the human element? How do you align individual and organizational objectives, say? Here’s a diabolically elegant example from the Russian programme:

“Voskhod-1 … was so cramped that the cosmonauts could not wear spacesuits. The story goes that one of the engineers warned the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, that the slightest leak of air would kill those on board. Korolev’s solution was to appoint the engineer as one of the cosmonauts, figuring that this would help motivate him to make the capsule as safe as possible.”

It’s an amusing anecdote, but is it only for this one-off situation?

Alan Engelstad and I recently published a guest blog-post on that talks about “self-organizing” regulation (the subheading about the US election was added by an editor…). We gave an example of how unsafe acts in the petroleum industry were dealt with using an elegant solution – in essence, guaranteeing not to punish unsafe acts, but rather punishing the failure to report them. This quickly and dramatically cut accidents, without draconian enforcement, and with union commitment rather than their previous resistance.

In both cases, some extra thinking up-front created better outcomes, without the need for overbearing and costly supervision.

Perhaps the most powerful principle for influencing behaviour is to establish a context in which the response you want is the most natural thing for someone to do. Then they will tend to manage themselves.