When risk goes to infinity...and beyond!

Apr 15th 2015 |

How did you get to become the head of risk for NASA?
I have worked for NASA in various capacities since the late 1980s. I was hired as the risk manager for the International Space Station program office about 12 years ago.
With management’s new focus and attention on risk, I led the efforts to redesign, develop, implement and improve the agency’s risk management processes through a phased, systematic approach setting the standard for NASA’s new risk practice. Since leaving the International Space Station office, I have worked in risk management on many different NASA programs and projects recreating the success of the International Space Station office efforts.

How is your job of risk management different at NASA – how is it the same?
Working at NASA is extremely challenging and never ceases to be fascinating. The opportunities and excitement of working on many different high-risk, high-reward programs with some of the most talented people in the world is impossible to describe. It’s a mix of a traditional fast-paced customer-oriented corporate environment combined with the research and analytics of a university campus.
Our focus in risk management mainly concentrates on the operational side – obviously being a government agency, there are no credit or market risks. Even though NASA’s risks can often result in loss of human life and tremendous adverse political impacts, our risk processes are probably quite similar to those employed by many other organisations and companies.
At heart, risk management is used to make informed decisions regarding many critical aspects facing an organisation. That improves the chance the organisation meets its goals. Management often relies on the risk team to assist in decisions regarding many critical organisational aspects.
Often I find the most challenging part of any position is human. Human interactions within a system often are the hardest to predict and are usually the root cause of many costly risks that mature. It is also often where processes break down and introduce new risks.

Walk me through a big project – at what point do you get involved?
Risk management is interjected at the conceptual design phase of a project (earliest stages), so that risk conversations can start. Risks trades and analysis can steer a project clear of major risks when they are obviously less costly even to mitigate.

When your job involves putting billions of dollars in the sky and lives at risk – are there other parameters that don’t figure in the equations?
NASA’s risk management approach is integrated throughout all levels of a project. NASA and all our contractor teammates, no matter their level in the organisation, are responsible for the identification and management of risks. Risks are continually identified and discussed at working group levels whether technical, financial, schedule or safety in nature.
People with a focus on risk who work directly within the teams comprising a project (called risk integrators) help shepherd risks through the identification and analysis phases and coordinate the formal discussion and vetting at team meetings and risk boards. Once a risk is approved, it is assigned a risk owner and managed at the lowest level where budget and resources are assigned and oversight of mitigation efforts can be appropriately managed.
Political and reputational risks are all within the sphere of risks that must be identified and managed. However, most of the more global, agency-wide risks are managed by NASA headquarters and not by individual programs and projects like Space Shuttle and Space Station offices. In addition some risks are managed external to the agency, ones which the agency does not have the ability to influence.

NASA’s website has simple equations of motion explaining how aircraft and space rockets fly – but the measurements and variables are enormous. Are there equations for risk management and do the same observations apply
Unlike other disciplines within science and engineering, risk management doesn’t always lend itself to an optimal solution – there are no standard equations that will lead to the best answer. Uncertainty is a critical facet of risk, so as a manager, you must make the best risk-informed decision based on the current quantification of both the likelihood and consequences of the risks that are determined through statistical analysis.
As an example, a recent risk trade analysis was done on the Orion spacecraft (similar to the Apollo/Saturn V rockets) as to whether its return capsule should land in the ocean (like Apollo) or land on land (like the Russian Soyuz). One of the major advantages with an ocean landing is that the spacecraft wouldn’t need extensive attenuation systems to safely protect the astronauts from high impact loads/ forces (the parachutes and ocean water would provide most of the attenuation).
However, because of the corrosive nature of salt water, crew capsules could not be reused. Because of the overall life cycle costs and the performance of the launch vehicle carrying the capsule into space (with the added weight of the attenuation systems), it was decided to go with the less risky water-landing option. This and other risk trade analysis was done using Probabilistic Risk Assessment modelling, a detailed and effective stochastic modelling approach used in many industries.

How do you avoid ‘boxology’ (check box risk management)?
Effective risk management is critical to mission success. The implementation of a thorough, disciplined risk management framework is required on all NASA programs and projects. However, NASA encourages program managers to tailor their risk management approach to fit the unique needs of how the program may be managed. So the focus is to implement and tailor the risk system versus having managers tick the box for compliance. All risk facets are managed including ensuring systems and capabilities are delivered in time and within budget.
The implementation and refinement of the NASA risk system supports a holistic and risk-informed decision-making process to ensure our strategic and operational goals and objectives are fully met. This requires that all programs and projects manage and integrate their processes into an enterprise risk system. Internal and external audits of the risk system are performed to determine the efficacy and support at all levels of each organisation.

Your projects are long and large – how do you take the long view?
NASA’s core risk strategy is to use systematic risk processes and tools for the effective early identification of anything that could adversely affect the performance, schedule, cost, or safety of our programs, projects or systems. Determination of the probability of occurrence and the size of any potential consequences enables risk informed decision making and proactive planning designed to improve the probability of achieving our missions. Following these principles focuses proper attention on the long-term horizon.

What have been the main challenges of risk management when budgets are being squeezed?
Risk management is more critical in times of budgetary cuts and refocusing/restructuring efforts. More and more emphasis has been placed to ensure that our programs are executed successfully and most importantly, safely within the constraints set in these changing environments. Squeezing budgets naturally tend to increase risks while reducing the risk budgets to mitigate them.

And finally, is where you work really space age?
It’s a government agency – so it doesn’t have the coolest designer offices. Drab yellow-brown walls, furniture that looks like something from the fifties. In my opinion, it conceals one of the best jobs in risk management, recreating the environment and excitement when space travel fully captivated the world.