Q&A With Dr. Hester

Q: Between your role and your media appearances, you had a front row seat for the Hubble mission. How did you feel when you saw those blurry images come back? What really caused the original problems with the Hubble Space Telescope?

A: How did it feel? Have you ever watched a train wreck in slow motion, wanting desperately to be able to stop it but being powerless to do so? Now imagine that you are riding on the train! There is a technical answer to what happened to Hubble, but the technical problem was a consequence of a deeper cause. Making the mirror was challenging. It had to be the finest telescope mirror ever made. The project was over budget and behind schedule. NASA was breathing down the neck of the contractor doing the work. Congress was breathing down NASA’s neck. Everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else. That high pressure, high stakes environment created a blind spot. Technicians had difficulty assembling a key piece of test equipment. Feeling the pressure and knowing that their bosses wanted it done yesterday they went ahead without really understanding the source of the difficulty. That small mistake resulted in a huge error in the shape of the Hubble mirror. You can’t lay it on the technicians, though. There was a second independent test that gave a different (and as it turns out the correct) answer. That should have been a big red flag, but nobody wanted to hear about problems. Everyone wanted so badly to believe that everything was OK that they ignored evidence that it wasn’t. Wishing really hard or insisting that you are right doesn’t make it so. Ignore that at your peril. That management of the Hubble program forgot that basic fact and paid a very high price.

Q: So you recently retired from ASU and went out on your own to redefine how we know what we know. Why now? What’s going on in the world that makes this idea so important?

A: One semester a student handed me his final exam and announced, “Dr. Hester, my father wouldn’t like you!” I was a bit taken aback until he explained. “My father is a salesman. You’ve been teaching us how to see through all the tricks that he uses. He wouldn’t like you.” I thought for a second and responded, “Then perhaps your father had better make sure that what he sells is actually worth buying.” For most of history humans didn’t really have to worry too much from day to day about what they did and did not know. If it was good enough for your grandparents and if it was good enough for the rest of your village then it was good enough for you. But today is not “most of history.” Today’s world is ripe with both danger and possibility, and the rules of the game are different. Read the news. Technology is changing at a breakneck pace in ways that affect every aspect of our lives. We are recovering from the greatest economic upset since the Great Depression. The world population is at 7 billion and growing. The international situation seems in constant turmoil even as the US political landscape is in polarized gridlock. Shall I go on? The stakes are high and the only thing for certain is that tomorrow will be different from today. Whether acting as individuals, corporations or governments, success and failure are determined more and more by the quality of our knowledge. If what you think that you know is wrong then you are likely to make poor decisions, and today’s world is very unforgiving. At its core my message is simple. “There are rules for knowing things, and those rules matter.” I know what it takes to look reality square in the face and I’ve seen what happens if you don’t. It was time to take that insight and experience and share them where they would do the most good. Besides, it would have been awfully boring to just settle into the role of “graybeard professor,” even if I do have the facial hair to go with it!

Q: Your bio states that you’ve given a wide variety of speeches. Do you like to speak? And if so, what’s the strangest place you’ve given a speech?

A: Apart from my family there are two things that I truly love. I love the beauty of a powerful idea, and I love sharing my thoughts and my passions with an audience. They say that a writer has to write; that a painter has to paint. It is just who they are. Well, I am a speaker. I can’t not speak. For me speaking is often a crucible where ideas blend together in novel ways and new ideas are born. I feed off of the energy and the feedback that I get back from an audience. There have been many times when I walked out on a stage exhausted, feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, and walked off stage an hour later as light as air. The strangest place I’ve given a speech? That’s a hard one! I’ve spoken everywhere from the House of Representatives to the back room of a beer hall. But the strangest place… In October 2005 my wife and I took a trip to Cozumel to do some SCUBA diving. While we were there Hurricane Wilma came to life in the southern Caribbean, headed north, quickly growing into one of the most powerful Category 5 hurricanes on record. Instead of the passing blow that had been expected Wilma stalled on top of the northeastern tip of the Yucatan. Cozumel felt the brunt of the most intense part of the storm for over two days. By the time the storm finally passed the low-lying island looked like a war zone. It had been largely scoured of vegetation and was largely under water. Huge chunks of what had once been the international pier filled ground-floor rooms of beachfront hotels. The harbor looked like a child’s bathtub filled with toy boats stacked on top of one another. We wound up weathering the storm with about 20 other stranded refugees in a small hotel just off the San Miguel town square. In the midst of the wreckage several of the members of our little group wandered down to the town square to pass the time. Somebody asked me a question about the Big Bang, and before I knew it I had been standing there for an hour and a half giving an impromptu speech about the mysteries of the Universe, soup to nuts. Perhaps it wasn’t a formal speech, but for purposes of the question I think that it counts!

Q: You talk a lot about WAGs – wild ass guesses. Do bright people fall into this trap or is it just those too busy to think? And if so, why do we settle for less?

A: Curiously, bright educated people are at least as likely to fall into the trap of settling for a WAG as anyone, and often more so. Look at it this way. For the most part people in the position to make important decisions are of above average intelligence. It’s their WAGs that do the most damage! As for why we settle for less, it is what our brains are programmed to do. I mean that quite literally. As I mentioned above, for most of history things didn’t change all that much over the course of a person’s lifetime. If something worked for your grandparents and had allowed your own group to survive then it couldn’t be all that wrong. In that situation it was dangerous to challenge groupthink and conventional wisdom. That approach to knowledge was bred into us. So much so that going along with the crowd actually causes our brains to release pleasure-causing endorphins and to shut down the neural circuitry responsible for rational thought. In short, we settle for WAGs because throughout most of human history that was the right thing to do. At least it was if you wanted to do things like eating and having children. We are a go along to get along species. But in today’s world the wiring of our brains betrays us. The good news, though, is that we can do better. The human brain is capable of a lot, including developing the habits needed to break out of that box.

Q: Let’s get real. “Question everything” is easier said than done. And it comes at a high political cost. How do you pull this off without coming off like a know-it-all (or worse?)

A: Well, to be perfectly honest over the course of my career I have been called worse names than “know-it-all;” but perhaps that wasn’t the question… Yes, the key to knowledge lies in continuously looking for reasons to reject the very ideas that you and others cherish most. Never stake your life or your business on an idea that you haven’t tried to kill first. So, with that in mind walk into your place of business tomorrow and announce, “I’m here to help by telling you why you are all so wrong!” Then get used to life as a pariah. This approach to knowledge is not always comfortable. Quite the contrary, one of the best signs that you are doing it right is that you get very uncomfortable. There are rules if you want to put this into practice and have everyone remain on speaking terms. Ultimately the responsibility lies with leadership. Take the time to establish a culture where everyone understands the rules; that being wrong sometimes is OK, but that failing to critically examine an idea isn’t. This quickly turns into a long discussion of leadership, corporate culture, well-articulated goals, teamwork, and professionalism, so I’ll stop here. One thing that I will say is that this will never work unless the CEO himself understands that his ideas are on the block as well. By virtue of his position on top of the food chain it is the CEO’s own WAGs that need the most intense scrutiny. So yes, this is easier said than done. If it were easy or obvious you wouldn’t need to hear about it from me! But let’s do get real. The question isn’t whether you can pull this off. The real question is whether you can afford not to try.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about how we have to innovate our way out of our problems. Do you agree? And if so, how does your approach impact how we open up new opportunities?

A: Innovation doesn’t mean doing the same things better. It means doing things differently. It is a fair bet in today’s world that doing the same thing tomorrow that you did yesterday isn’t going to cut it. Adapt or die. As an astrophysicist my career has been about innovation and the life cycle of ideas. Quite often the most elusive part of innovation is identifying opportunity. Have you ever seen something clever, smacked yourself on the head, and wondered, “Why didn’t I think of that?” In part the answer is that you weren’t really looking. If you sit around waiting for an “aha!” moment it will never happen. On the other hand, the world will tell you about opportunities for innovation if you are listening. The thing is that listening is an active process. If you want to find something hidden under a rock, start turning over rocks. Similarly, if you want to find opportunity for innovation start looking for flaws in what everybody thinks that they know, and when you find one take advantage of it! In short, when you approach knowledge by constantly looking for flaws in your own thinking, opportunity for innovation is a happy byproduct. Beyond that, innovation becomes a dance of unrestrained out of the box thinking and intense, unforgiving attacks on all those beautiful new ideas. Innovation means exploring lots of possible paths, knowing ahead of time that most of them won’t pan out. Another thing about innovation is that it seldom takes where you thought that it would. The surest way to kill innovation is to insist on knowing the answer before you even start the process. If I had to boil it all down into a single sentence I’d say, “Successful innovation is pie in the sky creativity mixed with cold hard take-no-prisoners intellectual violence.” Oh. One final point. The most important conversations are often those that take place in the halls between people who normally have no reason to talk to each other.

Q: Leadership is a hot topic right now. What do you think is the state of leadership today? Are massive changes in store and if so, what changes do leaders make to stay ahead of the curve?

A: There is a huge difference between being a leader and being a manager. A leader’s job, first and foremost, is to make decisions today that will carry a company or organization forward into tomorrow. A leader’s job is to spot problems in time to avoid disaster and to see opportunities for innovation in time to take advantage of them. I know that I keep repeating myself, but in today’s world if you are willing to settle for groupthink and complacency you aren’t going to make much of a leader. The market will have its say, but if someone were to ask me how to become one of tomorrow’s leaders, business school would probably not be on my list of recommendations. What I would say is to go into a field that is really hard and then make a point of developing broad interests. If you are uncurious or afraid of things that are new and different that’s a problem. Being a leader means understanding that quite often the most important ideas come from unexpected directions, and that unless you are looking around taking in the scenery you are going to miss them. There is a lot of talk these days about strategic risk. Study after study has found that mismanagement of strategic risk is far and away the most common cause of loss of value. But while auditing departments understand things like compliance risk and operational risk, mitigating strategic risk is a whole different animal. It requires a whole different skill set. The key to mitigating strategic risk is to see it coming. You won’t see strategic risk coming if you aren’t looking for it. The way you look for strategic risk is by constantly looking for flaws in your thinking about the world; in other words, by constantly trying to show that your ideas are wrong. The way to mitigate strategic risk is by continuously challenging what you think that you know, and not settling for WAGs. That is also how you open doors to new opportunity. That is not the job of an auditing department. That is the job of a leader.

Q: Between globalization and changing market conditions, complexity is the new normal. And this shows up on the ground level with teams. What changes do you see changes in team dynamics?

A: I’ve been a part of numerous teams, most of which were formed to tackle complex, open-ended but resource- and time-constrained problems. Some were incredible experiences. Some… well, some weren’t. The best of those teams had several things in common. First and foremost they were composed of really sharp people from widely different backgrounds who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. If you are doing the laundry the power of a team lies in its uniformity and the interchangeability of its members. If you are dealing with complexity, on the other hand, the power of a team lies in its diversity and the members’ independence of thought. Team members are valuable because of the things that make them unique. Interesting, innovative thinking often happens at the boundary of different areas of expertise. A team dealing with complexity is well served by a member or two who are accomplished, super smart, problem solvers, but who know little about the task at hand when they walk into the room. In the process of bringing those people up to speed you are likely to stumble over things that otherwise you would have missed. Sometimes it is the outsider who sees the elephant in the room that those closer to the problem miss, or who comes up with an altogether novel but powerful solution. When slaying WAGs, the more vantage points you have from which to challenge ideas, the better. Yes-men are not allowed. If you pack a team with people who agree with you or with each other there is no way you are going to learn anything new from them. Such teams do a good job of rearranging deck chairs and patting themselves on the back afterwards, but they are very unlikely to notice the iceberg. For a team to work well it needs the right leader. The best team leader I ever worked with described his style as follows. “Find really good people, provide them with resources, protect them from outside interference, then be sure you don’t get in their way!” It is the leader’s job to establish and maintain the right kind of culture. If you bring together the sort of people I’m describing you can bet that there will be conflicts. Trust is a huge part of a successful team. People on the team don’t have to like each other, but they do need to trust and respect each other. Like WAG slaying in all contexts, teamwork can get uncomfortable. Staring reality in the face is seldom a feel-good activity, but it can be a very rewarding experience. There are things that will kill a team. The concept of “need to know” is death. A team needs to know whatever the team thinks that it needs to know. Period. When you are dealing with complexity there is no way to prejudge what things are important and what things aren’t. Fear will kill a team. If the members of a team are worried about keeping their heads down or saying the wrong thing the most important thoughts will never be expressed out loud. Team members had better own it. That had better understand that only way to succeed personally is for the team to succeed as a whole. That one should be obvious, but often isn’t. I’ll stop there. Does any of this represent a change in team dynamics? That depends. Does what I just described sound like your corporate culture? If so, you are all set!

Q: Gaze into your crystal ball for a second. What do you see on the horizon that represents our biggest threat (and also our biggest opportunity?)

A: Well, you asked so I’ll be honest. The largest single threat sitting on the horizon is global warming and its handmaiden, ocean acidification. Global warming is one of those things where the answer is not a matter of opinion. Quite frankly, the current “debate” over global warming is a bit like debating over whether or not a bowling ball will fall if you drop it. The ball is going to do what it does, regardless of your opinion, and if it lands on your toe it is going to hurt! Curiously the only thing that you won’t hear about global warming in the news is how it actually works. I’m an astrophysicist. I know about this stuff. The energy balance that determines a planet’s temperature is really pretty easy to understand. The basics were a classic exam problem in introductory astronomy classes long before it became a political issue. The whole thing takes about 5 minutes and fits nicely on the back of a paper napkin. Ask me about it sometime. I mention global warming at some personal risk. There are people who could be put off about it. On the other hand my whole message is about staring reality in the face, regardless of whether we like what we see. No one wants Earth to be warming, but Earth didn’t ask our opinion. It is just marching along, behaving in accordance with the inexorable laws of physics. The consequences of global warming and ocean acidification are more complicated, but again the basics are pretty straightforward. If anything the predictions of scientists have so far proven to be too conservative rather than overly alarmist. The thing is that global warming is not only our biggest threat; the solution to global warming is also our biggest opportunity! The solution would spur technological development, cut our dependence on foreign oil, mitigate a host of national security issues, open up a path for sustainable development of the undeveloped world, create whole new industries, reduce a variety of environmental concerns, make energy far cheaper than it is today, free up huge resources for other problems, and solve a problem that we are going to have to face soon anyway – a finite supply of fossil fuels. This one should be a no brainer.

Q: Everyone has to come up for air once in a while. What do you do to revitalize your thinking? What recharges you?

A: A very wise man once told me that if you aren’t having fun you aren’t doing it right. Those are words to live by! A lot of things help me recharge. Spending time with family is high on the list. My wife and I have been married for going on 35 years. We have three daughters along with two granddaughters and counting. I learned a long time ago that I am a more reasonable human being when I get a fair bit of physical activity. I try to do Bikram (hot) yoga at least two or three times a week, and even look for a nearby studio when I travel. Walking in the desert with our dog Charlie is a daily ritual when I am home. I am very much an outdoors type and pretty adventurous. Don’t just try anything once. Try it twice in case the first time you weren’t doing it right! I enjoy backcountry hiking and backpacking, and like to have camera at the ready when I go. A real treat is when my wife and I get away for a week or so to go SCUBA diving. We’ve been diving for about 25 years. No resort course divers are we! We did our advanced certification with a former Navy SEAL who thought the usual sport certification was for wimps, and paid our dues shore diving in cold water off of the beaches along the California coast. Although I’ll admit that these days 80 feet of warm, clear, calm water over my head feels pretty good. There are a lot of things that remain on my bucket list. I have yet to jump out of an airplane, and one of these days I’m going to follow our youngest daughter’s lead and get my divemaster certification. I’ve also yet to raft the Grand Canyon. As for revitalizing my thinking, I do a lot of reading. But perhaps unsurprisingly what I really love is to sit down and talk with interesting people about almost anything.

Q&A With Dr. Hester  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118