Know how to ward off Disruption? It takes a special kind of person to be inspired by a mandate riddled with risk and having little margin for error, such as the one issued in the early 1990s by NASA to its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California: “Take risks but don’t fail.
Meet Brian Muirhead, who at age 41 accepted the job as flight systems manager of the Mars Pathfinder project and with it the NASA challenge to land a cutting-edge, remote-controlled robotic all-terrain rover on Mars that would reliably beam back images, collect samples, and return scientific data on the red planet.
The only catch: he was given just three years and $150 million to do it. No one in his or her right mind would want to manage the next Mars project, if indeed there was one.
Brian is a quiet, cerebral, and unassuming rocket scientist. Now chief Project Manager at JPL, he has a significantly bigger title, less hair, and more white in his beard than when I first met him, undoubtedly as a result of his almost 42 years of intense involvement with high-profile missions in pursuit of JPL’s mission to push the outer edge of space exploration.
One of my all-time favorite stories from Brian is the one he told about the Pathfinder team’s approach to a “don’t fail” strategy. He tells how he was personally disrupted, by one of his daughter’s kindergarten projects. The teacher gave the class an assignment right up Brian’s alley: design a package that would protect a raw egg from being dropped off the school roof. It was an annual event, affectionately referred to as the Great Egg-Drop Challenge.
It was right up Brian’s alley for two reasons: not only is he an expert on momentum, but the radical solution enabling the successful landing of the rover on Mars on July 4, 1994 addressed essentially the same problem.
Brian had an answer in a snap, and coached his daughter in a rather conspiratorial way in order for her to arrive at the same solution, which involved a milk carton stuffed with newspaper.
Together they cut up newspaper, wadded it in the carton, put the uncooked egg in a plastic bag and set it on top of the loose packing. They tested it several times of their home’s high balcony to find just the right amount of padding to allow the egg to land safely.
The whole school gathered for the event. But it was not the teacher who did the testing. It was the school principal, who tested the designs not by dropping them straight down, but by throwing them in what Brian described as a “big, high, looping arc.” Get the visual?
Needless to say, Brian’s daughter’s egg was crushed, as was his daughter’s morale. Brian himself was devastated: here he was building a spacecraft to travel 300 million miles to land safely on another planet and he couldn’t even help his daughter design a landing device to protect an egg.
Brian realized a valuable lesson from the kindergarten experience, and applied it to the Pathfinder project: inevitable, unforeseen and disruptive forces could be the ruin of the project, so there had to be a way to mitigate their potential impact.
Enter what I call the “Gremlin” strategy. Interestingly, the Pathfinder team had just lost their fault systems engineer, so Brian asked another team member to fill the spot. His name was Dave Gruel, but he eventually was nicknamed “Cruel Gruel,” because he was the ultimate Gremlin.
The term “Gremlin” was popularized during World War II, and referred to an imaginary creature that creates problems in normally reliable hardware.
With the kindergarten experience fresh in his memory, Brian tasked Dave with duties beyond fault protection: he asked him to dream up all sorts of challenges to throw at the team. It turned out that Dave Gruel had a real flair for the role, and spent his days and nights devising ways to disrupt the project.
Brian urged them to be cautious, to think things well through, and to make sure they were making the right move. His words of warning went unheeded, though…the team was certain they had analyzed the situation thoroughly, and were ready to roll.
Except…the Gremlin had come in during the night.
As Brian tells it in High Velocity Leadership:
Running a couple of available calibration checks had shown something wasn’t right. Yet the attitude of some of the rover people, so cocky, so certain of their judgment, kept them from stepping back and questioning their decision.
I see this attitude all the time in speaking and doing consulting work with leaders and companies!
In the end, the Gremlin strategy was extremely effective in enabling the Pathfinder team to learn how to deal with uncertainties in a way that positively neutralized disruptive forces. It allowed the team to build robustness, speed, and flexibility into their implementation.
The application to business is clear. If you have a successful business, the chances are very good that somewhere someone is dreaming up strategies that may just throw you for a loop.
So why not beat them to the punch?
Take a page from the Mars Pathfinder story and set up a Gremlin group in your company. Charge them with putting you out of business in new and innovative ways. Done right, it will not only ward off disruption, it will do more to build innovation capability into your organization than any highfalutin innovation program some big name firm sold you on. Mars Pathfinder didn’t need such a program, and neither do you.
What’s amazing to me is the level of passion, verve and vigor I see inside the Gremlin teams. The level of engagement is a full click above their engagement in their “real job.” Early indications are that this may be a wonderful new wrinkle to the trend toward internal innovation and startup mechanisms like incubators and accelerators, which have replaced the older “skunkworks” approaches.
As for Brian Muirhead, an individual fond of dramatic destinations, I have no doubt that he’s hard at work on his favorite answer to the “what’s next?” question he was often asked: “I’m working on a project that will attempt to land a spacecraft on an active comet and analyze it.”
So, if the word “disruption” is being uttered in the halls of your company (as it seems to be in almost every one I visit), gather ye Gremlins, and go to work!
(Warning: brave heart, strong will, and intestinal fortitude required!)
More about Matthew E May:
Matt is one of those rare finds on the speaker circuit! His innovative and creative interaction keeps his audiences engaged
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