Inspired by Curiosity (and the teams at NASA)

The first week of August 2012 was inspiring in many ways. We’ve been watching Olympic athletes give it their all. Then, last night NASA’s space lab/rover Curiosity landed successfully on Mars and began to beam images to earth. This sounds easier than it was, as the scientists and engineers involved called the landing on the Red Planet “7 minutes of terror.”(To see why, watch NASA’s explanatory video on YouTube called “Challenges of Getting to Mars”.)  It’s great when we can look at what’s happening in the world and focus on being inspired instead of being disenchanted. As leaders, your role is to inspire the best performance and outcomes from your team.  Here’s how the landing of Curiosity provided me with leadership inspiration:

  1.  Make ‘em believe it’ll work.  Obviously, the group working on this project had to share a collective belief in what was possible. They were building something based on theoretical knowledge and laboratory testing. There was no room for doubt.  Until she actually landed, Curiosity represented a wonderful innovative idea – one that many people wanted to see work. Path-goal theory tells us that followers need leaders to instill confidence that they will meet their goals.  What is it that your team needs to believe in? Perhaps you need to conduct a few small experiments to help turn doubt into belief. When someone says “That won’t work” your job is to say, “I think it will work. Let’s just try.”
  2. Include many solutions. The combined solutions used to slow down Curiosity included a heat shield, a parachute, rockets, and a  tethered sky crane. The combination was new, and much of the technology was new too. Wouldn’t it have been fun to be part of the brainstorming session on this? It looks like the team had a inclusionary attitude – even the video included many diverse voices. Most complex problems today would benefit from a more collaborative approach. Try it in your group. Instead of sorting through a million bad ideas for the one or two good ones, try coming up with a few really good ideas and then say to each other, “How can we use them all?”  
  3. Wait patiently for results. Curiosity was in space for 9 months before it landed. That’s a long time to wait for results of your hard work. In our society, we are used to quick fixes and quick results. Imagine that your work is going to enter the marketplace and hurtle through a vast darkness full of dangerous barriers and roadblocks. Are you still willing to launch it? I noticed that the engineers called it “7 minutes of terror” and not 9 months of terror.  I’m sure they have been busily working on other things while Curiosity was in transit. They focussed on the most crucial aspect of the voyage, and left up to fate that which they couldn’t control. In business, many good ideas are abandoned while still in orbit and never given the chance to land safely. How long are you willing to wait for success? Ask your team what they need to leave alone for a while.
  4. Invite cheerleaders and advocates. There was positive momentum created by NASA, as more than 226,000 people around the world watched on-line to cheer Curiosity’s landing. Had it not landed, however, we would have mourned along with the team. Curiosity’s engineers shared their challenges and were vulnerable enough to admit it might fail. Instead of hiding behind their expertise (it IS rocket science!) they opened themselves up by talking to us in plain language. In business, some teams are afraid of looking like losers, and they talk exclusively about success. Whether an experiment works or not is only a small part of the equation. Future funding and resources come faster when others know that you are dead-serious about results (NASA called it zero margin of error) and that you’ve put all you have to the test.  Who in your organization do you need to better engage with? How can you help your team to communicate to others the ups and downs of their work? 
  5. Get inspired by others. The Olympics and NASA both have rich histories of success and failure and they provide inspiration year and year. In many businesses, there are long-term employees, founders and others whose stories can inspire the most disenfranchised team. There is much to be learned from viewing the past retrospectively. Is there a team that is involved in crucial work which you have felt was too technical to learn about? Leaders can invite others to speak about their projects at a team meeting, or arrange a tour of another facility. Look outside your industry for inspiration too. At your next team meeting, why not watch the NASA or Olympic videos together? Talk about how they inspire each of you and how the lessons you’ve learned can be put to good use.

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