Lessons learned on Earth may soon go deep into space

Professor of Management and PetSmart Chair in Leadership Jeff LePine is half-way through a multiyear grant from NASA to study how astronauts — and the rest of us — can more easily and efficiently make transitions between daily tasks. Find out what’s the next frontier for ASU and NASA.

Professor of Management and PetSmart Chair in Leadership Jeff LePine is half-way through a multiyear grant from NASA to study how astronauts — and the rest of us — can more easily and efficiently make transitions between daily tasks. Switching from individual work to team work can be tough, as can switching from a complex project to a mundane task. In both cases, how well or how poorly astronauts and earthlings make those switches affects our productivity.

The NASA research ties in with other work LePine has done on how to form teams, what it takes to make them useful, and how they adapt when something unforeseen happens. “The focus of this research is on understanding the nature of transition periods, how different features of the tasks and those involved influence what’s going on during the transition, and how that change influences effectiveness on the subsequent tasks,” LePine explains.

The proposal by LePine’s team — including assistant professor Ned Wellman and graduate student Daniel Newton — on the topic of team task switching was one of 16 projects NASA selected in early 2015 for its Human Research and Space Biology programs. NASA said it wants the research so it can develop resources and measures that will ensure astronauts remain healthy and maintain performance standards during their missions. After all, repairing something improperly or miscommunicating with a teammate might be manageable on Earth, but fatal in space.

From previous research, LePine already knew that teams and individuals have routines that make it hard to switch gears from one task to another. Now he needed to find out what variables cause those difficulties and what we can do to counteract them.

Simulation supports research mission

The NASA study started with LePine’s team developing a firefighting simulation and enlisting W. P. Carey management students in the experiments. Participants trained in different roles and teamed up to fight a virtual fire. After 20 minutes, the researchers told them their fire truck had broken and needed to be repaired, and gave each a set of Legos. After the trucks had been re-assembled, participants re-joined their team and continued fighting the fire.

The firefighting part of the experiment required participants to work as a team on a task involving decision-making, while the truck-repair part required participants to work individually on a simple assembly task. The researchers measured how effectively each person assembled their truck and surveyed participants about their transitions.

Some people struggled to transition. Those who were thinking more about fighting the fire were slower and less productive in fixing the truck than those who became focused on the second task. Such “residual engagement,” LePine says, can influence how quickly we transition to our next task, and how much we are distracted and unable to engage in it fully.

One factor is whether participants sense the previous task is complete. Participants who were told they were done firefighting performed better at truck repairs than participants who were told they would have to return to firefighting. When a previous task is still hanging over your head, the research says, you have a harder time transitioning to a new task.

Another factor affecting transitions is the feedback we get on our performance. Participants who were told they had done well at firefighting did better at truck repairs than participants who were told they’d done poorly in firefighting. Participants in the latter group dwelled on that bad news, hurting their performance on the second task.

The third significant factor was participants’ cognitive ability or brain power. Smarter people were better able to recognize and accept their feelings of residual engagement, Newton says, and better able to figure out ways to overcome those feelings.

LePine says he was surprised by how well the concept of residual engagement worked in practice. The experiments consistently showed that residual engagement, or the lack of it, affected how people performed when switching tasks. Also surprising was how positive emotions from the first task spilled over and boosted participants’ performance on the second task.

That “buzz,” however, can be a double-edged sword. “When individuals are performing one task, and they are highly engaged, the positive emotions linger and can have a positive effect on the subsequent task,” LePine says. “But at the same time, if you’re more engaged with the thing you’re doing, it makes it harder to disengage from it mentally, and this negatively affects performance on the other task.”

NASA hopes the research comes up with countermeasures or protocols that can mitigate adverse effects and make transitions easier and more productive. Lessons learned so far can be applied on Earth, too, LePine says. For example:

  • Managers could recognize the implications of transitions and schedule tasks accordingly. They might hold regular meetings in the morning, then give employees time to transition to — and complete — more complex or individual tasks.
  • Teams could take the time to verbally go through an assignment’s goals before jumping into the work. In switching to different tasks, they could take the time to debrief each other and acknowledge that they are done with the task. Talking before or after a job can serve as a mental demarcation line, which makes transitions easier and more productive.
  • Individuals could learn how to compartmentalize tasks. Don’t ruminate about the previous task. Instead, tell yourself that you need to disengage from that one and focus energy on what you need to accomplish next. 

The next frontier for ASU and NASA

LePine’s team has entered the second phase of its NASA work — studying people interested in becoming astronauts who spend weeks in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) under more space-like conditions. The team is looking at how these subjects transition between individual and group tasks typically done in space and is measuring performance when tasks vary in completeness or complexity. They also are looking at how personality and psychological states such as stress affect performance.

Those tests so far show that some people are better able to compartmentalize than others. That could be due to personality traits, or it could have been learned in training. If people can be trained to compartmentalize, LePine says, that could be another countermeasure that improves performance after task transitions.

Out-of-this-world research

HERA subjects have continued to be studied, and the team may eventually survey cosmonauts training for Mars missions and scientists in Antarctica about their task transitions. What happens next is even more important, LePine says, because it involves surveying astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Steps like this will further the research because if management students or the HERA subjects mess up a job, it’s not the end of the world. “But it’s important that we get out of a situation where there’s not as much at stake for the different tasks,” LePine says. “The purpose of the next step is to go into an environment where there’s more at stake than in a lab — where there’s less of a safety net, where there’s more stress, and the tasks are more important and critical than in a controlled environment.”

Still, LePine admits he almost ignored the email inviting management researchers to submit proposals to NASA. It was Newton who got excited about the request and helped LePine and Wellman put together the winning plan and conducted experiments. Now that’s a team.

Journey through the booming business of space exploration in the autumn 2017 W. P. Carey magazine where this article was originally posted.