Five Workforce Lessons From the Mars Missions

Five Workforce Lessons From the Mars Missions
Credit: iStock/cokada

“We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …”

—President John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962


In September, I was fortunate to go the FABTECH conference in Chicago, a sprawling tradeshow with what must have been billions of dollars of manufacturing equipment on display: robots, automation, 3D printers, you name it. While there, I had the privilege of listening to a keynote address by Adam Steltzner, an engineer at NASA involved in numerous space missions. Adam led the Entry, Descent, and Landing Team that successfully landed the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars in 2012. To capture the lessons he learned through that intensive experience, Adam wrote a fascinating book called The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation. Here are five lessons I wanted to share that come partly from his book, partly from his presentation, and entirely from our solar system (or at least, the effort to explore it).

  1. Look at Your Candidates’ Potential, Not Their Past. From the outset, Steltzner grabbed my attention not because he’s especially brilliant (although I’m sure he is!), but because he just seems so ordinary. In fact, he barely graduated high school, failing numerous classes (some twice!) in his quest for musical stardom. Luckily, once in community college, he discovered a passion for math and physics. His budding interest in astronomy turned into his life’s work. In just 10 years, he was leading a mission to Mars. This meteoric rise begs the question of any business leader: Are you looking only at the past performance of your applicants, like their grades or degrees? Or instead, are you looking at their potential?
  2. Set a Bold Vision. Much of Steltzner’s book focuses on the importance of creating a vision for your team that everyone can get behind. “Don’t be afraid to seem crazy,” he says, discussing the increasing creativity necessary to land rovers on Mars, culminating in the recent Skycrane used to land the Perseverance rover this past February. And this was just one small part of the overall craziness of the Perseverance mission. Don’t forget about the Ingenuity drone flying around the Martian surface despite Mars’ atmosphere being just 1.2% as dense as that of Earth, or the plan to return Martian surface samples to Earth. As President Kennedy outlined in his groundbreaking speech referenced above, these are hard tasks that take “the best of our energies and skills.” So, the question becomes: What bold vision does your company have that motivates and energizes your workforce?
  3. Plan for the Long Term but Improve in the Short Term. Can you imagine planning now for a product or service that won’t debut until 2028? That’s exactly what successful long-term planning requires. President Kennedy announced the Moon mission in 1962, and almost exactly seven years later the Apollo mission landed on the Moon. The same is true today. It takes five years to plan for a mission, then two years to determine if that mission was a success. To address this challenge, Steltzner writes, “Asking the right questions in the first place, then listening deeply to the answers, is vital to embarking in the right direction.” It’s also critical to become a learning organization, a lesson that NASA learned the hard way in 1999 when two successive Mars missions became smoking craters on the planet’s surface. As Harvard Business Review detailed in this 2004 NASA case study, “There is no reason to believe that success indicates a flawless process while failure is the result of egregious bad practice.” Based on these insights, every leader should ask themselves: What are you doing to ask the right questions up front? And what are you doing to learn from the answers?
  4. Celebrate Your Team. I remember vividly rushing out of my office to show my kids and wife the Perseverance landing live online, where we watched raptly in the hopes of a successful landing. It was the exciting culmination of years of hard work by NASA teams. When the team started celebrating, their enthusiasm was infectious. Even my five-year-old son started jumping up and down and cheering. Steltzner writes, “That great work requires many people coming together is one of the great prizes life has to offer,” and relates some funny anecdotes about how his team stormed the boring post-landing press conference, shouting their team name and turning a dull debrief into a party. Very few of us are lone wolves when it comes to work; even the most independent of us works on at least one team of some sort. What have you been doing to celebrate your employees? Have you made a big deal out of it not just internally, but externally as well?
  5. Spark Curiosity Amongst Your Colleagues. Too many companies are run on fear: the fear of losing market share, upsetting shareholders, launching a failed product, you name it. This fear leads to uncertainty and stagnation; Steltzner calls this situation a “Dark Room” that can be paralyzing for individuals and teams. To avoid this difficult situation, Steltzner advocates for welcoming curiosity into our boardrooms and video meetings. Why? Because curiosity is in our genes. Before we can ever say a word, we wonder about the world around us, experimenting with toys, and playing with anything we can get our hands on. When you’re with your team, ask questions that spark their inquisitiveness: Can we do this? What will we learn by exploring this particular area? Sure, this is crazy, but is it the right kind of crazy?

After diving deep into the Mars missions, I was convinced that the leadership approach Steltzner learned at NASA could, in fact, help small manufacturers nationwide. He leaves us with an important question for any business leader: Where will your curiosity take you and your company next? 

This article originally appeared on NIST’s Manufacturing Innovation blog and is reprinted with permission.

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