“We can lick gravity, but sometimes paperwork is overwhelming.”
—Wernher von Braun, Chief Architect of Apollo’s Saturn V
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins may have been the most visible figures of the 1969 moon landing, but the Apollo 11 team included thousands of people led by a select group of program and project managers at NASA. Tasked with the nearly impossible goal of putting an American on the moon in less than a decade, the Apollo program will always be remembered as a remarkable feat of technological innovation. And yet to many leaders at NASA, .
Use these 10 lessons learned from their extraordinary experiences to make your own project a stellar success.
1. Keep Open Lines of Communication with Stakeholders
“When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight.” —Dr. John M. Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy
To say Kennedy set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. The fact is, sometimes stakeholders will have sky-high expectations that you don’t think are realistic. So take a cue from Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center at the time. He recognized that he and Kennedy were working on the same team, not fighting against each other. Instead of starting his relationship with Kennedy on a tense, adversarial note, Gilruth chose honest communication. He said, “I don’t know if this is possible,” and followed it with frank and upfront details about the resources NASA would need in order to make the dream a reality. Gilruth recalls, “[Kennedy] really wanted us to be successful.” So no matter how difficult it may be to manage your stakeholders’ expectations, remind each other that you share the same goal and use that motivation to focus on the project’s success.
2. Planning is the Most Important Step…
“We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases.” —Dr. Maxime A. Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules
When faced with an extraordinarily complex project, Apollo’s program leaders broke it down into much smaller steps and focused on attaining each one. They set a series of milestones: phase 1 was to fly to the moon, phase 2 was to orbit the moon, phase 3 was to land an unmanned craft on the moon, and so on. They organized all their work and measured their progress around these set milestones. Had they immediately set their sights on a full-fledged lunar landing, history may have turned out very different.
In spite of the time crunch, the NASA team put a great deal of thought into the planning process, viewing it as an opportunity to cut as much risk as possible. Dr. Faget recalls, “I basically said the best way to deal with risk management is in the basic conceptual design, get the damn risk out of it.” If you’re facing a tight deadline you may be tempted to jump right in and get to work, but check that reflex. Take a beat and formulate a thorough project plan, considering risk from the very beginning. You’ll thank yourself later!
3. …But Don’t Be Afraid to Modify the Plan
“They probably normally expected us to land with about two minutes of fuel left. And here we were, still a hundred feet above the surface, at 60 seconds.” —Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot
On descent to their landing site, the lunar module’s computer became overloaded with tasks and incoming data, threatening to reboot in the middle of the landing sequence. Armstrong and Aldrin discovered they were going to miss their target, and would likely smack into a crater littered with treacherous boulders at an alarming velocity. Armstrong took semi-automatic control of the lunar module, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just 25 seconds worth of fuel left. If Armstrong and Aldrin hadn’t acted, Mission Control would probably have been forced to abort the mission, and Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.
So remember that even the most well–thought–out project plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises. Don’t be so rigid that you fail to adapt to either save your project from disaster or seize the chance to deliver beyond expectations.
4. Acknowledge Risk, but Don’t Let It Deter You
“We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We feel comfortable with all of the unknowns that we went into this program with. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go.” —Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Director of Flight Operations
The Apollo 11 mission was perhaps one of the most risky undertakings in human history. From technical failure to human error, any number of things could have gone wrong — and did. But without acknowledging and planning for that risk, the achievement would never have been made.
NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, “What if?” Having backup systems and procedures in place ensured there was always a Plan B. So be proactive in assessing and managing risk for your own projects. Identify situations that could trip your team up and plan for them — but don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.
Another risk management strategy embraced by NASA: training and empowering your team to make good decisions and fix problems on the fly. Howard Tindall says, “I think one of the greatest contributors to minimizing risk was the extraordinary amount of training that was done. That really saved us many, many times because I don’t think there was a single mission that we didn’t have some significant failures. The fact was that people could figure them out because they had been trained and knew how to work with each other.”
5. Be Strategic About Team Communication
“One of the biggest challenges that we had was one of communication and coordination.” —Owen Morris, Chief Engineer & Manager of the Lunar Module
Apollo’s team of project managers went from managing small projects with a select team of close colleagues to managing thousands of people they had never met. Coordinating such a massive effort required constant communication to avoid costly or dangerous errors. Their solution was to identify five central priorities and drill them into every single level of the organization. With the entire team aligned around those set priorities, communication and discipline became infinitely easier. Team leaders also met every few weeks to coordinate efforts, discuss progress, explain current challenges, and work together to overcome problems. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support they needed.
Communication is often cited as the #1 reason projects fail, so take a proactive approach. Don’t just trust that communication among team members will fall into place on its own, or that everyone will assume the same priorities. Create a plan for how your team will communicate with each other and with you, and check in frequently to offer support, clarify high-priority tasks, and make sure processes are running smoothly.
“Another thing that was extraordinary was how things were delegated down. NASA responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do these things, and were expected to go find out how to do it.” —Howard W. TIndall, Jr., Mission Technique Coordinator
Delegating to people who don’t have experience with a certain task may seem counterintuitive, but it was something Apollo project managers actively encouraged — in fact, the average age of the entire Operations team was just 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves.
So while it’s tempting to give important tasks only to team members who have direct experience, you may be missing out if you do. While you shouldn’t just dump a critical task on a hapless employee and wish them good luck, with the proper support, fresh eyes and curious minds can discover the most innovative solutions to a problem — or find valuable ways to improve stale processes.
7. Record Lessons Learned
“When we had the [Apollo 1] fire, we took a step back and said okay, what lessons have we learned from this horrible tragedy? Now let’s be doubly sure that we are going to do it right the next time. And I think that fact right there is what allowed us to get Apollo done in the ‘60s.” —Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Director of Flight Operations
The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made recording and learning from their errors a central part of their process, from the very top of the organization down. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.
Follow their lead by making retrospectives an ongoing part of your project, not a one-time event that’s relegated to the end. Collect lessons learned at each standup or status meeting to refine your process as you go, and take the lead yourself so your team knows it’s safe to discuss mistakes and roadblocks without judgment. Your team — and your project’s results — will be that much stronger for it.
8. Celebrate Success as a Team
“We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you.” —Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit
At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you deliver a successful project to a group of happy stakeholders, share that applause with the rest of your team. Relay positive feedback and results back to the group, acknowledge their hard work with a round of high-fives, and use small wins throughout the project to fuel continued hard work.
9. Make Project Success Sustainable
“The leader has got to really believe in his organization, and believe that they can do things, and find ways to challenge them.” —Dr. Maxime A. Faget, Chief Engineer & designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules
Once you’ve achieved success, how do you make it repeatable across your entire organization? According to Apollo’s project managers, every successful project needs three things: the first is a vivid picture of where you’re going and what you can accomplish to motivate your team. Second: complete commitment from leadership so your team has the support they need to get things done. And finally, a deadline or goal to keep everyone focused on high-priority tasks that further immediate business goals. Secure these three things at the beginning of a new project and you’re already on the path to success.
Keys to Project Management Success
As experienced project managers, we know you have some expert tips on managing projects and achieving results that are out of this world. Share your best advice with fellow readers in the comments below!
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