Lost in translation

Volume 20 Newsletter 8

Anyone remember the Mars Orbiter disaster back in 1999?    A 125 million dollar space shot to Mars disintegrated on impact because two project teams didn’t speak the same language even though they both lived in the same country.   As it turned out the Jet Propulsion team based in California were speaking metric, (think millimeters and meters etc.), while across the country, in Denver Colorado, the gear heads at the Lockheed Martin Astronautics site sat crunching their numbers in the British Imperial System of feet and pounds.  But that wasn’t the real problem.

While it might have been convenient to blame the crash on the mix up in systems the problems went deeper than that.  As it turns out, the Lockheed crew were understaffed from the get-go which led to project delays, workarounds and staff being seconded from other projects.  Seventy plus hour work weeks were common which led to errors by an exhausted staff.  Firefighting became the mode of operation as problems constantly needed to be identified, managed and put out.   In the end, analysis showed that there may have been a way to prevent the disaster, a contingency plan, aptly called a ‘contingency burn’ in the language of aeronautics.  Unfortunately for both teams, this wasn’t even discussed.   They were simply too busy prior to take off.

While most of us aren’t sending rockets to Mars the story has an all too familiar ring.   Firefighting leads to exhaustion, burn out and all kinds of errors and omissions. In the case of the Mars Orbiter, managing flareups led to a spectacular crash, both of the space craft and more than a few careers.  If strategic planning is at one end of the spectrum, firefighting is at the other.  When leadership doesn’t have a strategy or abandons its strategy the result is constant firefighting with impending disaster close on its heels.  

As many of you are working on teams that have been trimmed by the economic downturn here are some guidelines to help you avoid firefighting and stay focused on your overall objective:

  • Firefighters – deal with every problem as it flares up 
  • Strategic thinkers – prioritize problems 
  • Firefighters – work on all things asked of them trying to please everyone 
  • Strategic thinkers – set the agenda internally accepting input from outsiders but never allowing them to interfere with the agenda 
  • Firefighters – believe higher ranking people have more urgent tasks 
  • Strategic thinkers – evaluate tasks based on their potential to deliver value to the customer and the company 
  • Firefighters – mistake busyness with effectiveness 
  • Strategic thinkers – plan meticulously then execute quickly 

It’s crazy times right now and business issues flare up and need to be taken care of quickly.  However, if constant firefighting is your mode of operation, take a moment, step back, start planning and start prioritizing.   That’s strategy!

Mars Probe Lost Due to Simple Math Error  Los Angeles Times By ROBERT LEE HOTZ OCT. 1, 1999

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