Out-of-this-World Teamwork Lessons from NASA

Businesses and organizations can learn from all walks of life, from winning athletes to musicians and artists, to name a few.

T.K. Ken Mattingly is a former NASA astronaut, a member of the Apollo 13 and 16 missions, and was immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster Apollo 13, in which actor Gary Sinise played him. A few years back I invited Ken to speak to my P&G team about teamwork and how those amazing NASA teams of the 1960s and 1970s took the world by storm with the moon landing, and even successful failures such as the safe return of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. And was the lesson a doozy!

I’ll let Ken tell the story that illustrates the teamwork theme of NASA:

We were in quarantine right before Apollo 13, so we wouldn’t pick up any illnesses. So we couldn’t see our families or anyone outside. There were many hours of boredom right before launch, so I decided that each night I would go out to the launch pad and study a different part of the lunar module. I would be better prepared than I ever was before.

One night, I was out on the pad and I ran into one of our engineers working at 3 a.m. on an electrical panel. The engineer was startled by my presence and demanded, Who are you? When I replied, I am Ken Mattingly, the pilot of the mission, he apologized and we began chatting.

The engineer said to me, Mr. Mattingly, I have no idea how this ship is ever going to take off and attain enough speed to leave the earth’s gravitational pull. Furthermore, I have no clue how this guidance system will get you to the moon. I have not a lick of an idea of how you will land on the moon, or how the heck you will ever make it back to Earth.

Now, at this point, I am scared. And wondering whether I should even be on this mission! I mean, if the engineers have no idea how things work, should I trust it?

But the engineer concluded with this: I may have no idea how all of that works, but let me tell you this, Mr. Mattingly. This panel is my responsibility. The electronics inside is my job. I guarantee you it will be perfect. If we fail, it won’t be because of me.

And that, in simple words, is the spirit of world-class teams such as NASA of the 60s and 70s: If we fail, it won’t be because of me each individual totally committed to delivering on their area of expertise. And at the same time, trusting the others to also nail their jobs to perfection. Every part of the organization delivering.

If we fail, it won’t be because of me.

I vividly remember how the day after Ken Mattingly gave this talk, my sales team started saying to each other in a flurry of e-mails, If we miss our annual sales target, it won’t be because of my section. It spread like wildfire. Each salesperson basically saying, I am going to make my number.

That was a hell of a year for my team. One of the best of my career. We not only met our targets, but also smashed them. Maximum bonuses to everyone. But the thing that shocked me to this day is, it’s the only time in nearly 30 years of business that I saw an entire 170-person sales team where every single person hit their sales targets.

Weaker teams have individuals willing to miss their targets and hope that someone else will over-deliver and take up the slack. This is how it often goes. Some miss, some exceed, and you hope it all averages out to overall delivery.

The great teams take a page from the NASA playbook. They share the Ken Mattingly story. And the team embraces If we fail, it won’t be because of me.