The leadership lesson I learned on my journey to Pluto
So there I was: reading about “New Horizons,” the plucky spacecraft and its 2015 flyby of Pluto. (Humor me: I came of age in the 60s – the height of the Space Race with the U.S.S.R., Apollo, and moon landings.) With only about twenty-five pages to go in the book, I’d figuratively traveled on board the New Horizon spacecraft for three billion miles over nine years. Now I was screaming toward my rendezvous with Pluto at 35,000 miles an hour.
A nine-minute window
For the New Horizons’ mission to be successful, the spacecraft’s data-gathering instruments had to work flawlessly starting seven days before reaching its closest point to the planet and for at least two days after.
But preprogramming didn’t guarantee success either. New Horizons, traveling at 35,000 miles an hour, had to reach a specific point in space within a nine-minute window.
The maneuvering of the seven data-gathering instruments – what they would look at, what they would measure – had to be preprogrammed into the craft’s computer. There was no astronaut aboard to point the instruments here and there. And there was no way that someone back at Mission Control could drive it in real-time. By 2015 New Horizons was three billion miles away from Earth. A signal traveling at the speed of light would take 4.5 hours to reach the speeding spacecraft. In that amount of time, what Mission Control had been directing the spacecraft to photograph or measure would have likely passed. But preprogramming didn’t guarantee success either. New Horizons, traveling at 35,000 miles an hour, had to reach a specific point in space within a nine-minute window. If the craft were early or late to that point, the computer would be directing the instruments to look at or measure something during the critical flyby period that wasn’t centered in their field of view – or not there at all. And there would be no time to recalibrate them. The potential to collect data would be lost.
The mission would have failed. A grace period of only 540 seconds. After three billion miles. And nine years.
The good news is that Mission Control scientists were monitoring the spacecraft as it approached the point and calculated that it was less than two minutes off – way inside the nine-minute-long safety window.
Everyone in Mission Control breathed a sigh of relief.
But what if we…?
Scientists and engineers are, by trade, perfectionists, so they started asking “Do we make a navigation correction? Do we scratch back a few more important seconds to make sure our instruments are pointing where we want them to point?” Days before the critical flyby, there was still time to do so.
It was a tempting proposition.
Dr. Alan Stern, the mission leader, gathered everyone on his team together to review the potential of sending correction code to New Horizons. And then he took three powerful steps:
- Stern asked each of his team members to voice their opinion on the wisdom of making the correction. One by one, around the table, each leader of a critical aspect of the mission voiced “Go,” recommending the correction.
- Stern waited and took notes until everyone had the opportunity to voice his or her opinion. He then made the decision: “No go.”
- He then asked a critical question, “Is there a must-do reason to make the correction when we’re already safely within the box?”He went back around the room and asked each section leader to respond.
After hearing from everyone, Stern stood with his original “No go.” The slight gains they would realize from the correction were not worth the risk of introducing a potential programming error this late in the game.
With apologies to Jim Collins, “great” is not always better. Sometimes “good enough” will do.
It was here that my mind drifted from the page. I started to wonder about the meeting Stern called and how he conducted it. I started to relate it to leadership in general.
- Do leaders typically ask to hear from all members of their team on critical questions, or because they’re the leader – “All eyes are on me.” – feel they need to make the immediate call?
- Do leaders typically speak last, or because they’re the leader – “All eyes are on me.”– feel they need to speak first?
- Do leaders typically push for “better” – “All eyes are on me.”– when there is evidence that “good enough” is good enough?
When Stern returned to his office, he was already receiving emails from the meeting participants expressing relief that he hadn’t caved to “group think.”
Dr. Melissa Hughes, author of the neuroscience-for-the-rest-of-us-primer, Happy Hour with Einstein, reinforces Stern’s steps as a meaningful way to avoid “groupthink” – “a psychological phenomenon that happens when people in a group willingly or unconsciously commit to decisions they don’t necessarily agree with to avoid creating emotional tension or conflict with their colleagues.” In Stern’s case, no one on his team wanted to be the only “No go” and buck the “group think.”
The consequences of groupthink, as Dr. Hughes describes them, can be significant:
When people…put harmony and cohesion above the critical evaluation and analysis of the outcome, they stifle their thoughts, refrain from asking the hard questions and avoid exposing potential pitfalls. This often leads to irrational or problematic decisions.
In New Horizons’ case, the consequences could have been disastrous.
As I returned to the last pages of the book, my mind was once again with New Horizons. I was now flying past Pluto at 35,000 miles an hour, a mere 7500 miles above its surface. As the spacecraft began to “phone home” its amazing images and other data, it was clear that New Horizons – the first mission to Pluto – was an unqualified success.
“Good enough” was truly good enough.