why space suits matter

Patented space suit_US 3751727

Why do space suits matter for inventors or entrepreneurs wanting to take a product to market?

It’s not to make a fashion statement, help defend against rejection from potential investors/customers, or to attract attention. Rather, the process of designing, developing and making space suits matters because it helps teach us something about the way we make decisions.

In terms of decision theory, the process appears to epitomise the “maximising” approach to decision-making strategies – i.e. identifying an “optimal solution” for each of a number of problems before making a decision. Or, so it seems…

While there is undoubtedly a very significant amount of work involved in making a space suit, the process can also alternatively be seen as representing a “satisficing” approach to decision making.

The term “satisficing” was coined by social scientist Herbert Simon in 1956 – a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”. It refers to a decision-making strategy that attempts to identify an adequate solution, rather than an optimal solution – particularly if the costs of the decision-making process itself are taking into account (see:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing )

According to Jocelyin Glei in her article “Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making” (published on 99% by Behance), the difference between a satisficing approach and a maximising one is that:

  • a satisficer will make a decision once the specified criteria have been met;
  • a maximiser will review all options before reaching a decision – the maximiser tries to reach an “optimal decision” in which no other available options will lead to a better outcome. The aim is to “maximise” the expected decision outcome.

This does not necessarily mean that a satisficer has a less than optimal outcome – a satisficing strategy may well lead to a near optimal solution. However, the approach does influence how quickly a decision is made and indeed how we feel about a decision afterwards.

Glei quotes Gretchen Rubin in a post in the Happiness Project:

“In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.”

What does this have to do with space suits?

Consider the long list of unknowns and degree of uncertainty involved in designing a suit that can withstand the rigours of space. Clearly, choices have to be carefully made, based on rigorous research. However, ultimately, choices can only be made on what is known – in the face of a large amount of uncertainty. Sure, space suit designs have changed and improved as more is understood about living and working in space (see http://history.nasa.gov/spacesuits.pdf). The space suits made for the Apollo mission were custom tailored for that single mission. Now, they are customised to fit, by assembling and disassembling different sized components as needed. Had a maximising approach been taken to the making of the first ever space suit, would we ever produced a working suit?

In this sense, space suit design is an example of a satisficing approach to product design – specify the criteria required for minimal performance, identify what is required to meet that minimal performance (taking into account environment, use, wear and tear) and put the product to the test. More can be learned from actual use than tinkering at the edges…and hey, it doesn’t stop you from later improving on the design.

In our experience in dealing with inventors, we are often asked:  what is the difference between an inventor who achieves commercial success and one who doesn’t?  

It makes a difference to have a well-researched and thought-through invention, and a well-resourced team. However, the key to commercial success seems to be a willingness to launch a product quickly with the view to continual improvement and development thereafter – a satisficing approach, rather than a maximising one. The value of getting to market and starting to generate revenue (and perhaps feedback) cannot be underestimated.

A risk of maximising every decision is paralysis through the pursuit of perfection. Perfection after all is elusive…and subjective. The only certainty is delaying launch on to the market. And that can mean life or death in commercial terms.



2 Responses to “why space suits matter”

  1. Reminds me a lot of the concepts in “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries and the “minimum viable product.”

    Good article.

  2. Thanks, Paul.

    I just got a copy of “The Lean Startup” and am looking forward to reading it.

    We attended SydStart this week, and there seems to be a collective consciousness around these concepts. Bill Bartee of Southern Cross Venture Partners put it this way: “fail fast, learn faster”.

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