January 4, 2018

Remember Why We’re Here


In most teams, there are different jobs that must be done by different people performing in sometimes wildly different roles. Conducting human spaceflight from NASA’s Mission Control is no different. However, it isn’t each individual job or role that matters most. It is our underlying mission – our team’s mission – and our alignment to it that set the foundation for the culture of that incredibly high-performing team.

As people are promoted into higher management with new responsibilities, we can lose that focus and with it the “big picture” at the unintentional expense of company performance. As I show in my book, Mission Control Management, our management team was no more immune to that risk than anyone else. But we also had a readily available reminder in the experience of the teams who were managing our most critical work every day, as the following excerpt explains from Chapter 1: “Clear Alignment to Purpose.”

In learning to articulate “The Foundations of Mission Operations” and reinforce alignment to Mission Control’s core purpose, we have always simply been trying to understand the answers to some basic questions:

• Beyond the specific jobs, what are we really trying to accomplish?

• What is it we must excel at?

• In order to achieve anything, what is it we cannot fail at?

• What makes us think we’re delivering?

• How do we keep delivering?

In other words, what is our real goal? What is our leadership intended to provide? How do we ensure that’s what we’re doing? Why do we lead?

In Mission Control, we are reminded every day that success or failure in our most basic purpose is at stake in everything we do in this incredibly dangerous business, and peoples’ lives hang in the balance with any failure. Screw up a decision, stop paying attention and miss some equipment failure, ignore some warning sign because it isn’t convenient in today’s plan… and damn it, we are forced to abort a mission, having now put the crew into harm’s way for nothing.

Or damage the spacecraft and put the crew at even greater risk.

Or we kill the crew.


Worst of all, and inexcusably, we could fail in situations that are otherwise within our grasp if we remain focused and aligned in our decision-making.

Beyond the rocket science and engineering, after debates in conference rooms, when the mission is underway, we distil this down to:

Mission Control’s Core Purpose: Protect the crew and return them safely to the ground at all costs. Ideally, in doing this, prevent damage to the spacecraft, and achieve as many of the mission objectives as possible, in that order.

Everyone on the team is firmly aligned to this purpose. As each of us gains experience, it is burned into our psyche. Your specific job and level of seniority are secondary to that alignment and sense of ownership. Each person on the team is responsible to Mission Control’s core purpose, and their every decision is judged accordingly, as is the entire team’s.

The dilemma I’ve had posed to me many times is, “Hey, I can see how this matters to Mission Control. But we don’t fly rockets and spaceships. We’re not going to kill the astronauts or anyone else if we make mistakes. How does this matter to us?”

Look past the smoke and fire, astronauts, etc. that define Mission Control’s specific occupation. Why does anyone lead?

Your business or organisation has some goal, some product or service it is intended to provide for some value. That value can be measured in many different ways. It may be in the marketplace and look like profit. Or, like NASA’s, could be responsible use of taxpayers’ investment to accomplish some national objective. This would be the base product or service, without which your organisation would not exist. After that, avoid mistakes that are so severe the enterprise cannot ever afford to make them.

Many lines of work other than spaceflight involve high energies and risk to people and infrastructure (oil and gas exploration, air traffic control, and many more). The comparison to Mission Control doesn’t apply only to them, though. More fundamentally, we all seek to prevent actions that erode the trust of customers and stakeholders—things that not only cost the organisation support but could also put it out of business.

In the purest business sense, don’t let something slip by that bankrupts the company or in some similar way erases all previous accomplishments. Get your rocket science right. Don’t blow up your rocket, however figurative. Avoid catastrophe.

Then learn from your experiences to catalyse strategic innovation— get better at your rocket science, and use that improvement to extend your capability. “Better” could mean “more efficient,” “higher quality,” “faster production,” etc. It also means leveraging the insights gained through different experiences to solve problems previously considered unsolvable. In that way, learn enough to extrapolate to new products and new markets.

Finally, align the organisation to these same objectives: the mission, avoiding catastrophe, and catalysing strategic innovation. For Mission Control’s level of effectiveness, this means buy-in and ownership at all levels, not just in the formal leadership ranks.

Why We Lead In Mission Control Anywhere
Accomplish a mission, add value

Accomplish all mission objectives

Deliver a product; provide a service — satisfy the customer

Prevent catastrophe

Protect the astronauts, the spacecraft and the public (Don’t blow up the rocket or crash the spaceship!)

Don’t bankrupt the company or damage the company’s reputation with customers and stakeholders

Catalyze strategic innovation

Learn from each experience to improve, solve problems previously considered impossible, and enable new missions

Increase efficiency; learn from experience to enable new products and new markets

Continuously reinforce alignment at all levels to these same objectives

In Mission Control, it is a great leadership luxury to have such a clear and compelling purpose with such a readily discernible moral component. That clarity simply makes it easier to see the imperative for us to align to our core purpose. It does not weaken the value in other venues. Some may just have to work harder to answer the question, “How does this matter to us?”

Paul Sean Hill is a former NASA Flight Director and retired Director of Mission Operations for human spaceflight. To learn more insights from Mission Control that can help your business, read Paul’s book, Mission Control Management, (also published in the US and Canada as Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom).

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Author Biography
Paul Sean Hill was the Director of Mission Operations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations Johnson Space Center from 2007-2014. Responsible for all of NASAs human space flight mission planning, flight control and astronaut training as well as Mission Control. Previously, he held a number of leadership positions and 1996-2005 Paul served as Space Shuttle and International Space Station Flight Director. He supported 24 missions, with leadership roles including planning and leading space station construction in orbit, instrumental leadership in the Columbia accident investigation and returning Shuttle to flight two years later.

Mission Control Management
The principles of high performance and perfect decision-making learned from leading at NASA
Price ‚14.99
EAN\ISBN-13 9781473668492

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