23 Jul Apollo 11 learning for future innovation leaders.

The Apollo program invested over $150 Billion (in 2019 dollars) to put a man on the moon and bring the astronauts back safely. The objective was not Faster, Better, Cheaper. That is for situations when the factors effecting success are known. The Apollo Program management model is for a situation that is unpredictable. The objective is to ‘do the right thing,’ in the spirt of Peter Drucker who said “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right thing.”

The stories told around the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing may inspire some leaders to realize that today’s innovation landscape has a lot in common with the unpredictability of going to the Moon, risking unintended consequences. That’s when “move fast and break things” is inappropriate and “doing the right thing” is imperative.

Two books provide some insight. Loonshots by Safi Bahcall and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal and co-authors, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, which I review for the first time in this post.

In Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas, Bahcall lifts the romantic veil around innovation hype that promises “lightening in a bottle.” As I describe it in my review – “The Secret to Innovation is in the Details,” Bahcall tells well-researched stories of the persistence it takes to research the situation, learn from experiments and recover after rejection. Only a compelling purpose would motivate someone to make these sacrifices. How does a leader manage for that objective, and at scale?

In Team of Teams, McChrystal shares the thinking process that led him to transform a well-established top-down, command and control organizational structure to a “team of teams,” networked by real-time communications that emulates a human nervous system.

Why would McChrystal disrupt a military organizational structure, risking lives, the fate of the US foreign policy, and his career? Because he was willing to admit that the legacy organizational structure wasn’t working against a disorganized, under-resourced, and unpredictable enemy. And he was learning why from experience in the field. The only predictable outcome of maintaining the status quo was failure, creating a compelling purpose to motivate an organization to make the sacrifices to succeed.

Apollo inspired his thinking. The creator of the Apollo managerial system, George Mueller’s “vision for NASA was that of a single interconnected mind” (p.147)

When President Kennedy envisioned the US being the first to put a man on the moon, he said the words that have motivated innovators for centuries: “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

McChrystal explains why managing is so hard when you don’t know what you don’t know, especially at scale. “In situations of unpredictability, organizations need to improvise . . . But at the broader institutional level it is more difficult to engineer structures that are both coherent and improvisatory.” (p.142)

“NASA administrators Robert Seamans and Frederick Ordway summarized the nature of the achievement as follows: ‘The Apollo project . . . is generally considered as one of the greatest technological endeavors in the history of mankind. But in order to achieve this, a managerial effort, no less prodigious than the technological one, was required.” (p.144)

If you are a leader considering how to manage innovation when the situation is uncertain, at scale, think about eating this elephant one bite at a time.

McChrystal started by recognizing that his organization already had small teams which could improvise and adapt on the fly, the Special Forces. These small elite teams were trained in their expertise individually and practiced fusing diverse perspectives into a 360° view of the situation, assessing real time change and making decisions together to adapt. They continually practice this united decision-making process motivated to survive life or death scenarios. A critical additional benefit is building trust and confidence in the team’s agility and resilience.

The “Team of Teams” organizational structure doesn’t replace these small teams. It multiplies the effectiveness of existing team assets by connecting them, borrowing from the Apollo model which connected teams physically, locating them in the same space, and virtually, through live communication technology. The precursor to the internet, “NASA engineers deigned an enormous set of radio “loops” that allowed teams to communicate with one another fluidly. . .‘You could tune into North American 2, and you’d be listening to the guys working the engine. If there was a problem there, you could hear how they were handling the problem.” (p.148)

Apollo’s live communication systems delivered “contextual understanding” to interdependent teams. This “cognitive ‘oneness’” is superior to the “command and control” management structure in today’s organizations because “as technology has grown more sophisticated . . . the way component parts of a process come together has become far less intuitive, and in many cases impossible for a cadre of managers to predict fully.” (p.140)

The Apollo program shift from command and control to systems management also improved the integration of  outside expertise. “ . . . to get a man to the moon, NASA needed expertise and capacity beyond that offered by its own staff.” (p.148) Before the ‘systems management’ approach, “NASA employees would take apart and rebuild everything contractors sent them.” (p.148).

Apollo’s systems management organizational structure was acknowledged as a key difference between the US and European space programs, “Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concurred that Europe suffered from a managerial deficit: ‘the Technological gap was misnamed.’” (p. 151)

Despite its success, the Apollo program systems management wasn’t sustained. It didn’t survive the 1990’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” NASA Innovation Program. The time “wasted” maintaining ties between teams was eliminated, resulting in unintended consequences. “One famous interface failure occurred when a communication gap between two working groups resulted in the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter: one system was built for metric measurements, one for imperial measurements.” (p. 152)

The lesson learned is that system management’s “cognitive ‘oneness’” may be inefficient in the short term, but efficacy is more efficient than Faster, Better, and Cheaper, in the long run. But how do you convince management or your Board that it is in the best interest of shareholder value.

McChrystal shares this example. As recently as 2005, Alan Mulally brought the “working together” management approach he used to develop the Boeing 777 to Ford, creating “the old-school, team-like oneness across an enterprise of ten thousand.” (p.194). “While GM and Chrysler were filing for bankruptcy in 2009, Ford . . . was turning a profit.” (p.195)

Let’s ‘do the right thing’ and figure out how to make systems management more sustainable.

McChrystal shares how they created a place for team representatives to sit together in a Situation Awareness Room and take advantage of video conferencing technology to share knowledge in a regular Operations and Intelligence briefing meeting with remote teams, including in Washington, DC.

To improve efficiency of collaborative innovation, we made a place to sit together with video conferencing so company’s small and large don’t have to invest capital in these resources. But a place and communication technology are not enough.

We share McChrsytal’s observation that “incentivizing collaboration, however, is easier said than done.” (p.174). That’s why we think learning how to motivate collaboration more effectively will improve innovation efficiency.

Safi Bahcall explores this in his book. The best analysis may be in Appendix B “The Innovation Equation.”  Honestly, I’m not sure I comprehend all of it; I am very curious for his explanation.

How do we give individuals both the motivation and trust to make sacrifices for the team. McChrystal’s book shares that “being part of the network became an important form of capital. Most important, it was not a zero-sum game; the more you put into the system, the more it could serve you.” (p.180)

There’s still lots of room for improvement.  For example, how do we capitalize on technology to make progress visible in real time, measure the benefits of adapting better together than alone, monitor for the risk of burning human capital, and predict resilience? Working together to ask the right questions to improve collaborative innovation effectiveness is “doing the right thing.”

Apollo’s system management provides a model for “doing the right thing“ instead of “moving fast and breaking things.” But as Kennedy said, “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

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katherine@comradity.com