“How do you build a close-knit innovative team under high pressure?”
Imagine being put in charge of leading a team to do something that man has never been done before. You have about ten people with widely differing backgrounds and personalities to work with. You have tight budgetary limitations, a rapidly shrinking timeline and high expectations from top management. Now add national media attention just to make it fun.
That’s the situation that Adam Steltzner describes in his book, “The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.” His task was to land a rover the size of a car on a planet millions of miles away. Today we’ll look at some of the successful leadership secrets he learns along the way that you can use in leading your team, even if you aren’t building an interplanetary spaceship.
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A New Way of Thinking
This project was Steltzner’s debut as a manager; he had been appointed Mechanical Systems Engineer for the Entry, Descent, and Landing of the rover Curiosity that was designed to land on Mars. The pressure was on in more ways than one.
NASA had successfully landed smaller rovers on Mars already, so the thinking was that they could just use the same methods for this one, saving time and money in the process. But Curiosity was more the size of a Mini Cooper, the earlier ones weren’t much larger than a toaster.
As Steltzner and his team looked more deeply into the problem, they found it wasn’t going to be as simple as everyone thought.
Previous rovers had successfully landed by essentially bouncing to the surface encased in a big air-bag cocoon. With the larger, heavier Curiosity, the bouncing air-bag approach wasn’t going to work – they couldn’t make bags strong enough and light enough. This forced them to reevaluate the entire landing system.
In the end they contrived a radical new plan to deliver Curiosity that involved supersonic parachutes, rockets to bring the spacecraft to a low hover, and a cable lowering system that winched the rover to the ground.
Their solution was so unique and seemed so risky that he had to brief the plan personally to top brass in NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before it was finally approved.
I found Steltzner’s description of his working environment, leadership challenges, and problem solving to be immensely fascinating. Something else that resonated is the fact that many of the truths about leadership and team building that he discovered along the way, are applicable to us all, whatever we happen to be doing.
Secrets of Team Success
Steltzner doesn’t hesitate to share the good, bad and ugly from his experience, even when it reflects poorly on him. And that’s part of what makes reading the book interesting. Here are eight key observations he made about what it takes to lead a team into the unknown.
Socialize outside of work. Steltzner and his team had weekly outings they called “Thirsty Thursdays” at a local pub. Through these regular meetups, they formed deeper bonds of friendship that allowed them to be brutally honest with each other during the long work days.
Give the team space to be a team. During these outings, the leader doesn’t always need to be present. In fact, sometimes it is better if he is not, so that they can become more open with one another without the boss looking on.
Watch your style. As a new leader, Steltzner assumed that everyone saw things the same way he did and approached problem solving with the same style. His style was aggressive – he questioned continuously, and challenged ideas in order to understand them more fully. Meetings were frequent, informal, and full of open debate. Not everyone thrives under these conditions and he fears that he may have caused some people to shut down and be less productive. Be ready to adjust your style to get the best from everybody.
Make it an open culture. The leader sets the cultural tone of the team, but that tone can’t be a single note; it needs to be more like a chord. You have to invite and welcome differing styles of thinking from your teammates. There is often more than one way to get a job done and the team benefits if everyone is open to new approaches.
Help connect the dots. Steltzner observed that not everyone necessarily wants to be a leader with the pressures of making sure every part of the project meshes seamlessly. But people do seem happier when they understand how their particular dots connect to all the other ones. The leader’s job is to make sure everyone is drawing the same picture.
Welcome the “Beginner’s Mind.” He encouraged teammates to meet with each other and understand what each was doing as part of this dot-connecting approach. And when one teammate doesn’t understand what another is doing, he asks questions from a “beginner’s mind.” These questions can be brilliant in their simplicity and drive the whole team to a deeper level of analysis and better problem solving. Welcome the questions.
The leader is also engineering people. It’s not just about the project, it’s about the people on the project. Good leaders understand that they are connecting the human dots that make up their teams just as surely as they are connecting the physical dots that make up the project.
Frequent, informal communication is key. While some parts of the organization might meet once a week, he found that communication was vastly improved with shorter, more frequent, informal conversations. The more teammates are able to exchange meaningful information about their efforts, the better for the whole team.
The Right Kind of Crazy – The Takeaway
These eight ideas are found in just one chapter of The Right Kind of Crazy. But the book is full of more leadership insights, problem solving approaches, and a captivating behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to land a spaceship on Mars.
While you may pause before picking up a book that looks like a deep dive into the world of science, Steltzner keeps it light, the story line moves along nicely, and you realize even the smartest guys find this leadership stuff challenging.
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