The Overview Effect

Andrew Gillott

Dec 23, 2015 

“So, my first memory of opening the hatch and looking down at the planet that’s moving five miles a second was ‘holy mackerel! This doesn’t exactly feel right.”

can’t help but be excited by the story that dominated British headlines last week and I’ve enjoyed watching Tim Peake talk about the six years of training he has undertaken in order to first reach the International Space Station and then subsequently live there for 6 months, before making the perilous journey back.

Amongst the excited chatter, there has been a lot of talk about how astronauts have a habit of appearing ‘changed’ when they come back to Earth. Frank White’s The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution presents interviews with 29 astronauts and explores the profound affect that space travel has had on their perceptions of themselves, their world and the future. The Overview Effect is seeing the Earth from space, a tiny, fragile, vulnerable bauble. White illustrates the astronauts’ “…cognitive shift…” and suggest that when they next walk amongst us they do so with an “…altered point of view about possibility…”

“…It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable…. All these things that may seem big and impossible … We can do this…”

Iwork with coaches. It was pretty full-on last week and involved a lot of watching, listening to, filming, asking about, challenging and supporting coaching practice with a background hum of space travel on every social media and news channel that I accessed in my downtime.

I’ve made some interesting connections.

“I had been well briefed on what to expect…But no one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got.”

First and foremost, The Overview Effect is an interesting example of the behavioural change we see as a result of experiences; a change that I am yet to see in coaches as a result of simply knowing. It’s significant to me that a simple online image search will uncover hundreds of millions of images of Earth from space. I expect that six years of NASA briefing is… thorough, and yet nothing was able to prepare these astronauts for the reality of their experience.

“Intellectually, I knew what to expect. I have probably looked at as many pictures from space as anybody…so I knew exactly what I was going to see…. But there is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact… It brought tears to my eyes.”

The Overview Effect is also about seeing things from a new perspective; in a different context; from a position that throws what was thought to be known in to fresh relief. Regrettably, I can’t fire coaches in to space (for once, budget isn’t the limiting factor here) but I can help establish some criteria and frameworks against which these practitioners can reflect, review, evaluate. It is these points of reference that give purpose and direction to deliberate, iterative practice. Create the conditions for Overview, perhaps.

“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

Space exploration is to some degree about mapping the unknown. I like this a great deal as a metaphor for the sometimes fumbling, sometimes strident steps that those with whom I work will take in their developmental journey. For certain, no map exists for us to accurately reference progress against. It is always uncharted territory. Liminal borders are reached without warning. Safe lands for some feel threatening to others.

“Maps help only in known worlds- worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and you can only get a general sense of direction.”

Clear criteria and frameworks for reflection and sense making provide a means to understand the changing landscape, and a tool for “…navigating by means of a compass rather than a map.” In turn, we are able to navigate further from our point of origin and toward another, where practice can be seen from a different perspective; with new context; perhaps like we could almost reach out and grasp it.

Hurst, D. K. (2002). Crisis & renewal: Meeting the challenge of organizational change. Harvard Business Press.

Weick, K. E. (2012). Making sense of the organization: Volume 2: The impermanent organization (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.

White, F. (1998). The overview effect: Space exploration and human evolution. AIAA.