On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered those immortal words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Kennedy's moon speech may have lit the fire--but it took more than that to turn inspiration to fruition.

NASA had 400,000 people working together to puzzle out problems via simulators and testing theories. While your failures are likely not life-or-death situations and you may not be breaking world records at every turn, there is still a lot your business should learn from NASA.

Here are five, 50-year-old lessons you would be remiss to overlook:

1. Look for problems (and solutions).

When tasked with fitting a square peg into a round hole to save the Apollo 13 astronauts, the team's instinct was to explain why it the system wasn't built that way. Thankfully, flight director Gene Kranz stopped this quickly, saying: "I don't care what anything was designed to do--I care about what it can do."

Kranz was asking the team to overcome a bias called functional fixedness; the "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" bias.

This commonly manifests in business as "that's how we've always done it." The best way to overcome this bias? Encourage questions like, "why does that matter?" and "if I was new to this job, would this still make sense?" throughout projects. Problems don't have to be life threatening to kill your company's progress. 

2. Test, retest, and know when to move.

NASA knew its ultimate goal from day one, but going straight for the moon would have ended in disaster. Instead, that big goal was broken into key questions like, "Can man function in space?" and "How can spacecraft rendezvous in orbit?"

Key questions were answered one mission at a time. Once each was answered, it was added to the "yes" column for the eventual moon landing. 

Make sure you have a big goal first--a rallying cry. Then, break that into smaller tasks. If your big goal is to create a green clothing line, you may have questions like, "Where is clothing's biggest carbon footprint?" and "Can clothes be made out of compostable materials and not disintegrate in the rain?"

Once you find your answers, move on to the next question. Don't get too hung up on perfecting the process.

3. Provide autonomy and support to hit big goals.

Kranz was just 35 during Apollo 11--which was ancient compared to mission control's average age of 26. It would have been easy to set up extensive review processes before an action was taken, but micromanagement would have compromised the moon. 

Instead, Kranz told his team, "Whatever happens, I will never second-guess any of your calls. Now let's go--let's go land on the Moon."

Delegate, and let your staff know delegation is not a negative. It's a sign of trust and respect. And, yes, you need to be explicit to break through the brain's filter.

4. Make key projects visible.

Imagine how different the moon landing would have been without video or photos. Mere descriptions wouldn't have the same impact, because mirror neurons in the human brain allow you to experience visually with others as if you're achieving the same feat yourself.

Allowing the public to live in the moment and experience along with the astronauts made it all more real and intriguing. Plus, experiencing the first steps in real time must have been incredibly motivating and rewarding for the NASA teams.

Visibility doesn't always mean video. It can also mean transparency throughout a project. Live broadcasts meant that even catastrophic failures were seen by the masses--and Kennedy's moon speech primed the world by admitting the U.S. was behind, would have failures, and chose this path because it was hard.

Transparency and visibility are the foundation of autonomy.

5. Put more thought into word choice.

Science has proven countless times that how you say something matters more than what you are saying. In behavioral economics, this is called "framing." Consider this:

  • If Kennedy said, "I am hopeful that a team will eventually be able to get us to the moon someday," would NASA have been successful?
  • If Armstrong said, "Well, we did it," would anyone remember 50 years later?
  • If Kranz said, "It's OK if you fail, but try your best," would the astronauts of Apollo 13 have made it home?

Armstrong and Kennedy knew their words were monumental and iconic. Kranz likely didn't realize businesses would be evaluating his words 50 years after he said them. Every conversation matters, and the words you choose could be the difference between changing the world forever, and just another day.

Published on: Jul 17, 2019
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