Moonshot Management

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo’s landing on the moon this past summer gave a great chance for celebration. It also forces some questions: What did we learn? Is it applicable today? How can the techniques and learnings from the moonshot help my team?  In 1968, before man landed on the moon, Science magazine wrote that the space program’s “most valuable spin-off of all will be human rather than technological: better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activity of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings”.  In a wonderful article in Businessweek this past July, Peter Coy’s reflects on the 5 key management lessons from the Apollo program:

  • Have a clear objective

  • Harness incongruence

  • Delegate and decide

  • Effectiveness over elegance

  • Improvise

These 5 tenets are particularly valuable when working in distributed, multi-organization, multi-agency contexts the context in which many of us find ourselves on the internet, web, and technology industries. Let’s take these lessons in turn:

Have a clear objective. In 1961, Kennedy challenged the nation with “the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” This gave all people working on the moon program in the coming years a very clear yardstick, or criteria, against which to evaluate or prioritize their work. Was it going to get people on the moon? And within the decade? Everything else was beside the point. In the marketing and internet industries, it is every bit as important to have a clear objective. Why are we doing this website overhaul? What are our Key Performance Indicators? What date is the launch party in London? 

Harness incongruence. It is important to have different voices with different perspectives on a team. This has proven useful time and again. An effective project team benefits from the diverse attitudes and skill sets of different disciplines. Unlike later business-orient shortsightedness and cost-cutting as exemplified by the recent Boeing 737 Max fiasco, the Apollo program had a strong culture of supporting doubter and dissent. If an engineer saw an issue or had a hunch, they had the authority to stop manufacturing, or even a launch. In the website design and development world, involving user experience designers, and content strategist, software developers together on a project helps to uncover potential issues that would otherwise materialize. Since each discipline left alone to their own devices naturally prioritizes their own concerns, without the collaboration with others it can lead to malformed results. Developers may try to make all the layouts of the website the same to increase efficiency. Or, conversely, the Visual Designers may wish to have every page layout be unique and different. While the project manager may be overly focused on finishing everything faster than is realistic. Bringing these voices together helps avoid the group-think of a specific discipline. 

Delegate but decide. To pull off such an audacious, complex, and fast project as the original moon shot program, many different organizations had to work in concert. There were multiple contractors such as Boeing and IBM, as well as NASA itself being more of a confederation of units such as the Ames Research Center, the Marshall Space Flight Center, and CalTech, rather than a single agency. To get things done required delegation of full portions to trusted vendors such as the Saturn V rocket stage to Boeing. Yet all the pieces and processes needed to be coordinated. Likewise in complex websites, internet development, and marketing initiatives, a series of trusted partners and collaborators are needed, while management and decision-making need to be unified. Peeling off entire portions of a project to specific individuals, or sub-teams helps instill pride in work and faster execution. Conflicts can occur though. The Art Director may insist that a background video loads a different source as the user scrolls the page; while Web Development may refuse to do that due to technical page loading issues. A single person or board needs to be empowered to make decisions, to handle tie-breakers, so that the entire project moves forward. It is important to have both empowered teams, and the ability to make clear decisions when needed.

Effectiveness over elegance. Apollo rockets and landing vehicles did not have the streamlined aesthetic of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon cartoon spaceships. The lunar lander that touched down on the moon looked like an origami box with flimsy spindly insect legs to allow it to stabilize on the ground. The spacesuits of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were bulking clumsy affairs. Nothing like the sleek uniforms of the 1960s Star Trek. Yet, each piece of Apollo equipment was efficient and effective. They did what they needed to do without wasting excess material or having the design get in the way of the function. Since the modern commercial internet is a consumer marketplace, there need to be considerations for the style, impression, mood that consumers appreciate. This is indeed different than for the government-run Apollo space program. When you get down to the website coding level, when you look at the CSS files or structure of functions, it is there that efficiency and clarity are the mandate. During Apollo it was calculated that giving the astronauts one more 8-ounce shaver would require adding 150 pounds of rocket fuel. The shavers were ditched. Same with a website: We don’t need two navigation systems when one is better. Plus, even if an all white web page with a single photograph and no text might look cool, it is equally important that the visitor knows where to click and how to complete their desired task. 

Improvise. Making stuff up in the middle of a project, or at the last minute, is not in anyone’s manual, but sometimes it is critical to success. Neil Armstrong ended up piloting the lunar lander “Eagle” and steered to avoid a boulder field on the moon, even though it was not in the plans. Then, when attempting to leave the moon, Buzz Aldrin averted disaster by using a felt-tip pen as an improvisation, after the plastic engine rearming switch broke off. Having experienced skill staff on hand during all of a website project is important because they have the training and background experience to know when to improvise. During a complex website launch, it may not have been planned to require a DNS change, or add permissions to the CDN, but then it becomes clear at the last minute that it is necessary. Be ready to improvise and experiment when needed. And be sure to have an experienced crew who have a large grab bag of tricks and skills, and the good judgment to know when to use them. 

People often focus accolades on advances in technology, as with the NASA space program and moon landing 50 years ago. Today as we approach 2020 people focus on Artificial Intelligence and amazing advances in big data. In both cases, though the technology is impressive it still takes intelligent social processes and collaboration to realize great results and make meaningful change. Working with a team that understands and respects these social dynamics is part of achieving success. 


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