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An audacious goal like Chandrayaan-2 requires a motivated team.
An audacious goal like Chandrayaan-2 requires a motivated team.

How moonshots combine power of audacious goals and pleasure of achievement

  • Moonshots are commonly used in today’s parlance all thanks to John F. Kennedy who delivered the historic address at Rice University bang in the middle of Cold War
  • Kennedy’s approach offers five principles that might be useful in the modern workplace

July has been a month of moonshots. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the launch of Chandrayaan-2, India’s second lunar adventure designed to explore water in the South Polar region. Both these missions were propelled by widespread public support, strong leadership and radical collaboration across laboratories, universities and ministries. They offer important lessons on leadership and provide a framework for chasing big, hairy, audacious goals.

Moonshots are commonly used in today’s parlance all thanks to John F. Kennedy who delivered the historic address at Rice University bang in the middle of Cold War. He called on his nation to commit to landing a human on the moon and returning him safely before the end of the decade.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard," Kennedy thundered, speaking before a packed audience comprising students, scientists and policymakers. His speech made the moon landing a national priority and unified people across party lines and socioeconomic divides.

Kennedy’s approach offers five principles that might be useful in the modern workplace.

When dreams come true

First, SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals matter. As author Tim Ferris puts it, life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask. Even while explaining a high-risk project with myriad uncertainties, Kennedy clearly defined timelines, success parameters and next steps. He was inspiring because he was specific and his specificity gave credibility to the goal he outlined.

Second, meaningful mission statements that touch upon something larger than our own selves have the power to transform a distant dream into a realistic outcome. Kennedy made the moonshot seem realistic not only to engineers and scientists but also to the public at large.

Third, courageous leadership thrives in turbulent times. Adversity brings out the best in leaders. Kennedy rose to the occasion when the chips were down. He lifted the spirit of the entire nation and channelled individual despair into collective hope. Even in the Indian context, Isro chairperson K. Sivan, speaking after the successful launch of Chandrayaan-2, explained how the entire team, technicians and support staff worked without a break to rectify the technical glitch that prevented the launch a week earlier.

The significance of Isro’s team work can be understood from the failed launch of the space shuttle Challenger. On January 28, 1986, Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds into its flight, killing the seven crew members aboard. The root cause identified by the President-appointed Rogers commission was failure in communication, conflict between engineering, data and management judgments and a Nasa management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key shuttle managers. Thankfully, Isro overcame the optimistic probability bias (a cognitive error where we are unreasonably optimistic about the probability of success), ever so common in large, complex organizations.

The fourth key insight is that we can make healthy competition and even rivalry work for us. Eight years between Kennedy’s address and the actual moon landing, America saw an exponential increase in innovation and creativity. It was Kennedy’s genius to leverage the rivalry with Soviet Union and further strengthen the American innovation muscle.

Fifth, moonshots need radical collaboration at scale. Although Kennedy was a key figure, the actual moon landing was a result of collaboration among thousands of engineers, budgetary legwork by Lyndon B. Johnson, riveting storytelling and salesmanship by James Webb, the head of Nasa.

Moonshots also teach us the importance of celebrating the journey as much as the destination. Like Apollo 11, Chandrayaan-2 also has a time-bound mission. In the next 45 days, Isro’s core team has to complete 15 intricate, crucial manoeuvers to ensure that Chandrayaan-2 lands safely on the South Pole.

A lot could go wrong. The work is far from done but moonshots like Apollo 11 and Chandrayaan-2 demonstrate the combined power of setting audacious goals and the pleasure of reaching them with the help of a motivated team. That’s why right after Sivan’s speech celebrating Chandrayaan-2’s successful launch, the entire Isro team went right back to work.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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