Achieving the Incredible – General Principles from NASA Mission Control

Throughout my career, I have often thought about those qualities required of people and teams when delivering large-scale and complex undertakings.

It takes a special kind of leader and a special kind of group to aim at incredible things with success, and especially deal with the inevitable problems that come from very large teams, businesses and highly-complex programs. There’s much to say around culture, how to organise, how to plan and how to operate and communicate. Handling deep issues and major change is also part of the art. It is a subject that fascinates me, because in the end we are a social, teaming species that achieves its potential through working together.

To get started, below is one of the best set of principles I have seen for running scale and complexity, and for when management, team work and leadership really matter.These were developed by NASA mission operations over the years – primarily learning from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. They have been popularised by the great Gene Kranz among others – he led operations for the Apollo 11 landing, the Apollo 13 rescue and much more.

These Apollo-era technical triumphs were also the triumphs of large, interconnected teams, linked by a strong simple vision, sophisticated management systems and the principles below. As Gene Kranz himself said: “We had risen to probably one of the greatest challenges in history, put a man on the moon in the decade. We’d created incredible technologies. But what was most important, we’d created the teams, what I call the human factor. People who were energized by a mission.”

It is also interesting to note that in the shuttle era, there were times when the principles weren’t fully applied – and the resulting cultural comprises had tragic consequences with Challenger and Columbia. The flawed and complacent decision to launch Challenger to maintain schedule was very different from the bold move to launch Apollo 8 – essentially a Saturn V rocket test flight – to go around the moon, where the risks were understood and managed. The principle of vigilance has been added as a result. No individual or team can can take its performance for granted, and risk and change are eternal.

The core principles are not tied to spaceflight and are strong principles for any team trying to achieve the large scale, complex and incredible. They are rules for making any kind of history, open to all of us. Enjoy.

Foundations of Mission Operations

1.To instil within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence

Discipline…Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.

Competence…There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.

Confidence…Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.

Responsibility…Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.

Toughness…Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.

Teamwork…Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.

Vigilance… Always attentive to the dangers of spaceflight; Never accepting success as a substitute for rigor in everything we do.

2.To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

3.To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. 

Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. 

Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.


Writings from Keith Haviland