Leadership and Innovation: Learning From the Triumph and Tragedies of the New Space Race

Image credit: iStockphoto/Hutangac

“Space flight needs leaders who go beyond where they can’t see, into the unknown, pushing the envelope for what might be possible. They are not satisfied staying within the box or looking within their own horizon.” — Mark “Forger” Stucky (former Virgin Galactic lead test pilot)

Look beyond the horizon to be future fit

There is much that tech executive leaders can learn from the trials and tribulations of the new commercial space race. When it comes to leading and innovating in the face of adversity, the stories behind Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic are inspiring for what can be achieved with vision, ambition, and sheer hard work. Each company’s origins were built on creativity, adaptiveness, and resilience as they faced high risks, test failures, and financial setbacks on the journey to forging a new reality of commercial space travel. It shows us that innovation truly results from hard work, not luck.

Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut by Nicholas Schmidle tells the inside story of Virgin Galactic’s early days from the experiences of former lead test pilot and director of flight test Mark “Forger” Stucky. Schmidle also recounts Stucky’s life — from starry-eyed youth to NASA, the Air Force, and Virgin Galactic; and through dozens of grueling test flights to his first successful trip beyond the earth’s atmosphere — from “Test God” to modern astronaut. Forger shared his story with unique perspectives on leadership and innovation at the Forrester Technology & Innovation forums this year (for both North America and EMEA). As Stucky says, “Space flight needs leaders who push the envelope for what might be possible,” but all leaders must look beyond the horizon to ensure their organization is future fit.

Test Gods tips for pushing your leadership envelope

Test Gods describes a world where “the line between lunacy and genius is blurred, and where no sacrifice is too great in pursuit of the dream of space travel.” It’s also a story of people seeking to innovate, collaborate, and test new ideas while overcoming setback after setback. Business success in such an environment needs strong leadership — not just at the top, but across all layers and areas of the organization. Future fit leaders can adapt this learning to:

  • Be prepared and ready to adapt to any crisis. When the test pilot takes the ship into flight, one split decision can mean the difference between euphoric success and bleak and costly failure. The pilot relies on all their experience, know-how, and ability to innovate on the spot when faced with a sudden life-or-death crisis. In September 2011, the spaceship that was released from the mothership unexpectedly flipped and went into an inverted spin. Stucky was upside down, out of his seat, 40,000 feet in the air, and spinning at a high speed toward Earth with the onboard computer going berserk. Somehow, he remained calm even when every technique from his training failed. Bailing out was not an option. Not only did he not want to be the first pilot to crash Richard Branson’s spaceship, but bailing out would be extremely high risk in a spin. He made an incisive decision and enabled the feathering system normally used for slow-speed reentry. It worked. While the business world is nothing like flight testing, recognize that sometimes a counterintuitive approach can help you solve problems when traditional routes fail. You don’t always need the latest innovation, but you can reuse existing technology in new ways to solve problems. Adaptation is often the most effective innovation strategy in a crisis.
  • Be authentic, open, and honest. Stucky talks about his willingness to speak his mind and raise concerns — often when others don’t want to hear it. This wasn’t about being the skeptic in the room, but because he was focused on the long-term goals. He would rather raise a concern than let festering animosity undermine the broader mission. He also expected others to stand up and admit their mistakes so that everyone could learn from them. Leaders must create an open, trusting environment for their team to share and flag concerns, and that starts with admitting and learning from your own mistakes or judgments.
  • Build your team for trust and accountability. With space flight, there’s no room for error. When a test pilot jumps into the cockpit, they must be confident that the engineers paid attention to detail for preflight inspections and not make any assumptions about quality checks. Trust in teams but also ensure teams are taking accountability for their actions.
  • Differentiate between real versus imagined risk. A test pilot must develop a philosophy for risk, weighing safety versus the reality of a perceived risk that’s really happening. After the fatal crash in October 2014, some engineers were drawing the wrong lessons from the crash, Stucky thought, allowing a fear of failure to dominate their calculations. If they couldn’t live with some risk, they’d never roll the spaceship out of the hangar. One contentious debate erupted over how long to burn the rocket. Stucky suggested 50 seconds, but one engineer expressed concern about overheating and proposed 22 seconds. Another, noting that avoiding “potential disaster” was paramount, recommended 15 seconds. Stucky argued that they needed to work with “thoughtful courage and not be blinded by fearful safety.” It’s often easier to identify and worry about the negative rather than the positive. Conversely, you can be overly positive and not plan for potential negative consequences. The challenge is to weigh up the risk or reward based on likelihood and consequence. You can do that by committee, but sometimes a leader will have to be prepared to make the call based on experience.
  • Ensure delivery is aligned with vision and vice versa. It has taken over 17 years, one catastrophic crash, and countless delays for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism dream to be on the verge of becoming a reality. Along the way, budding astronauts have faced promise after promise for when their large investment would result in a few minutes of weightlessness and a unique chance to look down on Earth from space. On the one hand, it’s great to have a positive vision and charismatic leadership, but don’t risk overpromising. People need to believe in a vision despite setbacks, but as we learned from the Test Gods story, a vision without goals and execution is directionless. Teams on the ground often sought direction on the next steps when all they got was lofty ambition and timescales communicated publicly that were disconnected from the realities of the real-world challenges they faced. Schmidle described it as how a corporate culture obsessed with rosy news could undermine its own ambitions.
  • Focus on the task at hand. There is no room for the mind to wander when flight testing. If you look out the window to admire the view, you risk screwing up. The phrase “don’t screw the pooch” is common among test pilots, meaning: Don’t lose control in the heat of the moment. The pilot must stay focused on every minutia and task critical to the mission. “If you savor the moment, you can miss a test point,” says Stucky. Similarly, leaders must not let distractions sidetrack their goals.
  • Keep learning and maintain a curious mindset. Embrace constant learning. Stucky often changed up his maneuvers. As he puts it, doing the same routine at the gym only gets you so far.
  • Push the limits and adapt to succeed with innovation. Being a test pilot is about testing the boundaries and gaining new insight from each test flight. Learn from the data and the experience to improve the design for the next flight. It’s an iterative cycle of fly, test, notate, adjust; fly, test, notate, adjust. This was the only way to guarantee that the spaceship would be ready for commercial service. Stucky describes it as always pushing against what you know versus what you don’t know and recognizing how much of what you don’t know matters. Similarly, innovation is a journey where you constantly must adapt to the changing environment and creatively overcome barriers or setbacks when the original plan no longer works.
  • Plan for the long term to scale up beyond prototypes. In comparison, prototyping is easy; production is hard. Proving something once is not enough, and sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture rather than focusing on constantly releasing the next version for flight testing (or even IT releases). Virgin Galactic decided to put the flight program on hold for nine months to work on enhancements rather than commit to the next flight this year. They viewed this as more beneficial in the long term versus the short-term gains of further flights. It’s not just about rocket or spaceship development, but if you’re going to be running a commercial service with weekly flights, you need all the infrastructure around it and confidence in the solution you’re delivering. You have to balance the options and make the right call between thinking and doing too fast versus too slow and never realizing your vision.

The original article by Phil Brunkard, Forrester's senior analyst, is here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/Hutangac