Being on the Same Page: 5 Team Building Lessons from Outer Space

On September 23, 1999, an embarrassing communication failure between two remote teams cost NASA $125 million. The mission, the Mars Climate Orbiter designed to provide data on Mars’ water history, was doomed at the outset. The spacecraft construction team at Lockheed Martin made its calculations using English units of measurement (inches and feet), while the NASA navigation team based its projections on the metric system.

The discrepancy caused the Orbiter to overshoot its orbit insertion and plow through the atmosphere, subsequently either crashing on the planet’s surface or spinning back out into space. An incredulous public, fueled by late-night comedian jokes, couldn’t believe this catastrophe played like a 5th grader’s mistake in his math homework.

NASA’s gaff is a reminder of the high cost of operating on a different set of assumptions, a failure to “be on the same page.” NASA has relied on the international metric standard for many years, but many of its America contractors had not made the conversion from the widely accepted English system. No one thought to question the reliance on these two accepted but incompatible systems.

A failure to communicate, to forge ahead with tacit assumptions, is a common problem for teams. Before embarking on any projects, teams should take the time to establish a few common-sense ground rules. After all, it’s not rocket science.

1. Agree on definitions of terms.

Besides the obvious technical terms and phrases, ambiguous words like process, quality, review, inspection, and, as in the Mars Orbiter’s case – measurement – should be narrowly delineated and consensus reached by all team members. Realize too that many words have different meanings depending on the context.

During a recent corporate lab at Group Dynamix, a team was able to perform a task more efficiently after members realized that they had been operating with the wrong definition of a common word.

2. Be specific about the process.

Be sure everyone is on the same page regarding goals (end results), objectives (measurable outcomes) and tasks (specific actions.)

Teams that have been handed only tasks without an awareness of end results can quickly find themselves out of step. And timelines can be a source of confusion: instead of ASAP, which can mean tomorrow or next year, give a time-and-date deadline or a “time within which” an objective can or should be accomplished.

3. Pin it down.

At the risk of appearing ignorant, ask for clarification about ambivalent statements, whether they are directions or commitments. Make a habit of rephrasing: “My understanding of what you want/what you can provide is . . .”

4. Factor in cultural differences.

Especially when teams have worked together for a long time, certain assumptions kick in that become part of the group’s cultural landscape. Traditions, jargon, shared experiences and ways of “doing business” are important components of a team’s identity. Different teams who come together must work through the mutual mindset of “we’ve always done it this way.” After all, the problem at the heart of the Lockheed Martin/NASA debacle was a cultural differenceof inches and centimeters.

Teams should work on ways of preserving their unique culture while creating a Venn diagram that includes a blending of cultures.

5. Rise Like a Phoenix.

So you’ve been on different pages. Now is the time to turn over a new leaf: assess, adjust and learn from failure. Lockheed Martin was not fired from future Mars projects. The company went on to perform key roles in subsequent missions, achieving great success with the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, which confirmed that there was indeed water on Mars. Looking to the future, LM is now working on the Orion Multi-Person Crew Vehicle, in other words, manned exploration of Mars.

It probably goes without saying that they are now doing all measures in metric.

These team building lessons will help you and your team work together better, and get on the same page faster. Even if your business isn’t based on going to space, learning from these points will still give you results that are out of the world.

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