Mars Shot

Consider this set of objectives…Launch a 794-pound object up through the earth’s atmosphere, travel 300 million miles through space (yes, 300 million!) over the course of seven months, hit the thin atmosphere of a small, remote planet at precisely a 12 degree angle, survive entry temperatures of over 2,700 degrees F (steel melts at 2,500 degrees F), create a series of remotely initiated, automated actions that will slow your projectile from 12,300 mph (roughly 16x the speed of sound) and gently land in a specifically designated spot on a barren, rugged planet. Impossible! Crazy! Done! On November 26th, 2018 a team of scientists and engineers at NASA completed this mind-bending feat successfully placing the InSight lander in the “Elysium Planitia” area on the surface of Mars. Smart, talented, inspired people working together are capable of truly incredible things. What can we learn from NASA that could apply to what we do as marketing leaders?

It starts with big vision – Years ago, a group of people showed up and pitched another group of people on the InSight lander idea. “So here’s what we want to do…” and then proceeded to share the scenario above. Think about the audacity to pitch a project like this and even further, think about what it would take to say “Sure, we’ll fund and support that idea.” Buy-in to a project like this requires a shared belief in the virtue and meaning of the mission and a commitment that despite the challenges and uncertainty the idea is worth pursuing. This requires serious organizational courage, a willingness to potentially fail in a costly and visible way while at the same time recognizing how the successful completion of the project could be extraordinarily inspirational and meaningful. NASA has a history of this kind of organizational bravery, knowing the challenges and risks yet moving ahead anyway.

Everyone’s in it together – The NASA team takes the “shared objectives” idea to the extreme. The entire team was virtually buckled in and hurtling through space on that little craft. There were no issues with misaligned KPIs, benign acceptance of others missing their numbers or doing mediocre work. If Bob in navigation forgot to carry the 1 and the craft careened off into the void the whole team would have been lost with it. If Sue botched a software update and communication with the craft failed, the entire NASA team would have been cut off. The fate of the mission relied on EVERYONE doing their best work, and EVERYONE was reliant on the work of others for the mission to succeed.

Freaky genius talent – If there were a way to measure the intelligence in a room the raw cerebral horsepower in the NASA control room would be off the charts. Beyond just intellect, the science and engineering skill levels required to be on such an elite team is insanely high. Achieving something so difficult where the stakes are so high requires the absolute best and brightest minds.

Execution is everything – Being smart and good at what you do doesn’t get things done. The brilliant NASA team had to combine their subject matter expertise with flawless execution. Going out on a limb here, but guessing the level of precision required to get the InSight lander on the surface of Mars is vastly beyond what any of us deal with in our daily lives. Each member of the team had to execute their individual elements to perfection while at the same time working seamlessly with the rest of the larger team. In many marketing organizations execution has been relegated to a downstream operations function, marketing grunt work, without a lot of respect for the craft required to do things well. The NASA team did not undervalue execution.

There are plenty of painfully cliched metaphors for teamwork (rowers, symphony/band, sports team, etc.) none of which are as powerful as the NASA InSight team. The magnitude of what they’ve achieved, their shared commitment, the quality of the team and focus on execution put them in a league of their own (badum-CHING).

Does your organization have a big vision? Maybe even something that envokes a feeling of wonder or seems a little crazy? Jim Collins and Jerry Poras were proposing this thinking way back in the mid-nineties with the concept of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) from the classic book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It may be a stretch to come up with anything as world-changing as landing on Mars, but we should consider what bold, meaningful and wildly ambitious things we might aspire to achieve.

Is everyone in your organization sharing the same higher-order objectives or is everyone still micromanaging their own individual KPIs? Is it possible members of the team could be hitting their numbers and yet your “spacecraft” could still crash into a planet at 12,000 mph? Are you confident your team has the talent, the training and the command of their craft to perform the core disciplines required for success? Is there respect for the craft of marketing? Does your team take pride in the execution of their roles and not just the completion of their deliverables? We should think about our own “Mars landing” and how we can establish the inspiration, talent, and execution required to make it happen.

The NASA InSight lander is running experiments, taking photographs and communicating with earth from a planet 300 million miles away! It’s staggering to me. I hope we haven’t lost the ability to be amazed by an achievement like InSight and can appreciate the enormity of what NASA has achieved. Likewise, I hope that as business and marketing leaders we haven’t lost our ability to go big, beyond just incrementalism and productivity and consider how we can do something much, much bigger. 3, 2, 1, launch…

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