I recently achieved a lifelong goal to go to the Kennedy Space Centre – the home of NASA’s space shuttle fleet – and found I got more than expected from the experience. I was amazed by the technology and the vast numbers of personnel involved in sending people, probes and satellites into space, and I was stunned at the size of the complex and the many facilities within it.
And in looking at the Centre’s achievements over the years and the spin-offs space research has had for us earth-bounds – microwaves, reflective sunglasses, dehydrated food, to name but a few – I was struck at the management functions reflected in all of these endeavours and the sheer size and scope of the projects undertaken.
I was inspired by the management skills and personal qualities needed in leading people towards a specific goal and sharing an extraordinary vision. I can only guess at what the discussions were like around the coffee table the morning after President Kennedy’s announcement in 1961 – ‘ok, we’ve got to put a person on the moon within ten years, its never been done before but we’re sure its possible. We’re not sure all that’s involved, we have this amount of capability, we have both advocates and critics – however, let’s go for it’. Imagine holding onto that vision and goal in the face of repeated setbacks, resource constraints and the need to continually break new ground in research and development. Would you have the strength and confidence to keep going forward and to take so many people with you down an uncertain path?
As for staffing, the philosophy at NASA has always been to recruit and select the very best people in their fields. This has meant highly qualified people with the ‘right’ attitude – personal determination to succeed, pride in one’s work, an ability to stay focused, a capacity for hard work, the resilience to keep going despite setbacks. Can you imagine the pressure on the HR people to get it right the first time, and to keep things right, organisationally? Would you have the people management skills needed to support and encourage so many people to consistently be their best?
And organising …. well, the Centre is huge. It’s set on 34,000 hectares. It is home to two launch pads, one of the world’s largest runways and America’s biggest building, numerous specialist facilities and thousands of employees. It receives over two million visitors each year. Can you imagine the organisational structures and systems required to keep track of the Centre’s supporting infrastructure, let alone its multiple projects? Would you have the organisational skills to know what systems would be needed to support a large or small organisation and put them in place?
The planning is something else again. NASA has huge projects with long lead times, extreme complexity, involvement of numerous different, intersecting disciplines; vast budgets and the potential for catastrophic failure at every step of the way. Landing people on the moon, sending probes to Mars, making segments of the International Space Station are all large projects requiring superb planning and monitoring to ensure everything that needs to happen, happens, at the right time, and in the right place, in the right way. Can you imagine the size of the project management spreadsheets? Would you have the skills to plan, implement and monitor large or medium sized complex projects?
Then there’s controlling. Consider for a moment the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan. It has taken seven years from launch (1997) to get the craft positioned to now begin a four year study of Saturn. It requires constant monitoring – communication systems, scientific instruments and engine. It needs interventions and adjustments to keep it on track. Can you imagine the fallout if the Cassini-Huygens went off track (all $3 billion worth) and nobody noticed? Would you have the skills to keep an eye on specific projects or the day to day running of the organisation and take timely action, when needed?
I often see the key elements in NASA’s success reflected in SMEs: a vision and goals that capture the imagination, sufficient resources to do what’s needed, the flexibility and adaptability to go back to the drawing board when needed and the ability to keep the focus despite setbacks. In place are excellent systems and operating procedures providing sound supporting infrastructures and the best staff available to create the conditions to keep employees happy, productive and successful.
Some organisations, by their very nature, enable people to be involved in something much bigger than themselves, to make significant contributions and to be widely acknowledged for their skills. But not all managers/business owners have those products/services, opportunities or desire to be players in an international arena, like the Space Centre. However, regardless of our placement in the business world, there are numerous, everyday opportunities to develop our management skills and contribute to organisational success. “You don’t need to have extraordinary effort to achieve extraordinary results. You just need to do the ordinary, everyday things exceptionally well”. Warren Buffet
Dwan & Associates, Dec 2004�