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Blog : Don't panic!


Don't panic!

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Channel 4 recently held an astronauts week where they showed a series of documentaries detailing what life is like for those living on the International Space station. This presented a view of some of the trials and tribulations that individuals went through living 200 miles above the earth for approximately six months at a time.

One of the most interesting, and tense, parts of this series was a programme that detailed some of the issues that had cropped up when astronauts had to leave the relative safety of the space station and venture out to complete repairs on the station itself. The most nerve wracking of these to watch, and I would imagine to live through, was the walk carried out by the Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. Shortly into one of his space walks he noticed that the back of his head had started to feel wet. It appeared that there was a problem with one of the life support systems he was wearing causing his spacesuit to fill up with water. This gradually got worse and so it was decided that they should abort their space walk and get back inside the station as soon as possible. Unfortunately as Luca was making his way back to the air lock the sun set plunging everything into darkness. This along with the water that was by now starting to cover up his face meant that his visibility was massively decreased and he had to guess his way back to the air lock. Thankfully he was able to make it into the space station safely but it appeared to be touch and go for a while.

After we had seen his predicament there was an interview with Luca, now safely back on earth. In this he was asked how he was feeling at the time was he, for example, starting to think about his family back home and if this was going to be the end for him. His reply was that this hadn’t occurred to him. The training he had received in both the Italian Air Force and European Space Agency had taught him how to cope with difficult situations and he was able to fall back on this. Instead of panicking about the fact that he might never see his family again he was actually thinking back to his training and coming up with other options that might be available to him and so what he might be able to try next were the situation to get worse. When asked if he was starting to panic he replied ‘no, panic is what happens when you have a lack of knowledge.’

This struck a particular chord with me as at the moment the Technical Development team at Purple Cubed are in the last few weeks of an eighteen month project. In my experience this is the point when the situation typically starts to get a bit tense and people start to panic. Strangely though this isn’t happening at the moment and I’ve been wondering why.

Part of the reason is I believe down to the ‘agile processes’ that we have been using to run the project and in particular the way we have been working in two week sprints. Without going into too much detail, this means that at the start of each sprint we get together and decide what work we are going to carry out in that sprint and then at the end of each sprint we review what we have achieved before starting the process again with the next sprint. This means that we all know what we have completed and how near we are to being done.

In these final few weeks we have also taken this a step further by listing the remaining tasks that we need to complete on a whiteboard. We can all then see what is outstanding and so know how we are doing and what we are likely to be working on next. We also then get the added satisfaction of being able to go up to the board and cross off what we have done so we can see a dwindling number of tasks ahead of us. This might seem a trivial point but I’m always struck by how satisfying it is to cross things off, and the sense of horror that went around the room when it appeared that a team member had broken the board was palpable!

So how does this relate to Luca and his words of wisdom? Well we may not be hanging from a space station 200 miles above the earth with our space suit rapidly filling up with water but what we do have in common with him is that we have knowledge of where we are and what we need to do next and this means that like him we should be in a position to have a successful outcome.

Here are my suggestions on how to avoid that feeling of panic:

  1. If you do start to feel overwhelmed, try and write down a list of the issues that are concerning you. This can often feel like a waste of time when you ‘are in the moment’ as we normally like to feel that we are actually doing something to rectify the problem but without a full list of the issues how can you be sure that you are striving to fix the right elements?
  2. Assess the list and decide which items should be your main focus and then work through these issues.
  3. When the panic is over don’t just sit back and reflect on the fact that a disaster was avoided as you’ve smashed it for the last few days, that is the sort of attitude that will lead to the same panic situation arising in future. Instead try and work out what led to the situation to begin with and what could be done to avoid it next time. To quote Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” and you’re not insane are you?
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