All Systems GO

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The miracle of Apollo 11 is always worth examining afresh, as the time and distance of generations have flattened it into a historical “fact” bordering on mere trivia. The moment of July 20, 1969, stands as the greatest achievement in the history of humanity, whether from the perspective of a technical exercise or from the perspective of the intangible qualities that are uniquely human: vision, boldness, inventiveness, exploration, leadership, professionalism. Just listen to what would be required of that task, and why it was nevertheless worth undertaking:

There is another side to Apollo 11 that ranks right up there, and that is the organizational accomplishment it represented. It wasn’t just that the engineers at NASA would have to work with “new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented.” To succeed, NASA needed to embark on an entirely new organizational way of doing things, on a scale never before attempted.

What’s even more impressive is to recall that at the moment Kennedy wrote this rhetorical check that NASA would have to cash, the credibility funds for NASA were low indeed. The results of NASA’s efforts up to that point were a string of failures, falling behind the Soviets at every mile marker worthy of note, and a single 15-minute sub-orbital flight by Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 at an altitude of 116 miles. (In contrast, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin’s history making flight lasted 108 minutes as he left Earth orbit at an altitude of 203 miles.)

This was the state of NASA as JFK signed it up to accomplish the science-fiction of landing men on the moon and returning them to Earth in less than 10 years.

To pull this off, NASA had to move beyond their organizational model of disconnected teams who operated in functional verticals and only shared information when absolutely required. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal describes in his best-selling book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World:

NASA found itself thrust into a complex environment, and would have to find a way to exploit the innovative abilities of a small team at the scale of a large organization. To put a man on the moon, the Apollo program would eventually employ 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries, at a cost of $19 billion. The old management model was not built to integrate discovery and development at this scale. … NASA would have to link its teams together by disregarding the “need to know” paradigm and widely broadcasting information.

Specialists continued to do specialized work, but they needed an understanding of the project as a whole, even if establishing that understanding took time away from other duties and was, in some ways, “inefficient.” NASA leadership understood that, when creating an interactive product, confining specialists to a silo was stupid: high-level success depended on low-level inefficiencies.

What [Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight George] Mueller instituted was known as “systems engineering” or “systems management,” an approach built on the foundation of “systems thinking.” This approach, contrary to reductionism [of Frederick Winslow Taylor], believes that one cannot understand a part of a system without having at least a rudimentary understanding of the whole. It was the organizational manifestation of this insight that imbued NASA with the adaptive, emergent intelligence it needed to put a man on the moon.

This “systems” approach to organizational management — what McChrystal terms leading a “team of teams” — is catching on among corporate organizations, according to an article from the latest issue of The Economist.

Kind of.

Citing a recent study by the consulting firm Deloitte bearing the Taylorist title “Global Human Capital Trends 2016,” the Economist author discusses the increasingly reliance of cross-functional teams and organizational matrices instead of hierarchies. Not surprisingly, merely adopting these forms isn’t the answer. Like Stephen King’s pencil, the secret isn’t in the tool you use, but rather what you do with it.

What organizations who are drowning in their teaming structures are missing, along with the Economist author, are the two functions that make “teams of teams” work, according to McChrystal:

  1. decentralization of decision-making authority
  2. radically transparent information sharing

 

Both of these require secure leaders who are able to both engender and exercise TRUST, and who are willing to buck the trend of “continuous improvement” that seeks to six-sigma every last inefficiency out of an organization. This, far more than open offices, team-building exercises, and dotted-line heavy org charts, is the real key to unleashing the organizational power of “systems management.”

If you team isn’t 300,000 strong, spread out over 20,000 different organizations across the globe, using never-before-used 1960’s technology all in a collective effort to do the most astounding act of organizational and technical achievement ever imagined, what’s your excuse again for keeping decision-making authority centralized and mission-critical information held close to the vest? You know the old saying: “If they could put a man on the moon…”