On July 20, we – meaning all of humanity – celebrated the 45th anniversary of what in my estimation will in some future era be remembered as the highest achievement of modern history: the moon landing.
The moon landing is rich with illustrations and lessons. Chief among them, as I write in Think Like a Five Year Old, the moon landing illustrates the great things we can do with the power of our God-given creativity.
The NASA program demanded and attracted the most creative people – solvers of intractable problems, people with ingenuity and innovation. While NASA certainly recruited people of the highest caliber, I believe the corporate ethos that developed around the mission to put a man on the moon made the creative energy of the entire operation – including the some 300,000+ people involved – better.
While we celebrate individual heroic achievement, we might also pay attention to the kind of atmosphere which fosters great things. Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission that first landed on the moon, wrote about the commitment everyone had to the mission:
Each of the components of our hardware were designed to certain reliability specifications, and far the majority, to my recollection, had a reliability requirement of 0.99996, which means that you have four failures in 100,000 operations. I’ve been told that if every component met its reliability specifications precisely, that a typical Apollo flight would have about 1,000 separate identifiable failures. In fact, we had more like 150 failures per flight, better than statistical methods would tell you that you might have. I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy on the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this thing off.
When I was working here at the Manned Spacecraft Center, you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was… people just worked, and they worked until their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o’clock or seven o’clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and they went home…
The way that happens and the way that made it different than other sectors of the government to which people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two dedicated, and three, fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those three ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you’re going to win. (excerpted from Rocket Men, by Craig Nelson.)
According to the first man to walk on the moon, if you want to create great things, for yourself or your organization, look for:
The work isn’t boring. People are being asked to solve difficult problems, and in the process stretching their knowledge.
Commitment only comes through a sense of higher purpose. In the moon mission, people weren’t entitled; they considered their involvement a privilege.
A genuine sense of fascination with what you’re doing. From the top to the bottom of the organization, people were aware that they were breaking new ground and were simply curious about what was going to happen.
I think the loss of this third factor is what led to the decline of NASA’s excellence following the moon landings.
How might you look for these three ingredients in your mission?