We had the opportunity last month, as my husband’s retirement gift, to attend the launch of his company’s latest satellite at Cape Canaveral in Florida (Kennedy Space Center). Since I spent the first 20 years at the same company working on satellites, it was a thrill for both of us. We’d never seen a launch before.
This was a special satellite – the largest ever launched at the Cape. With solar array panels that would unfurl to the size of a basketball court. A flexible antenna that would would spread 40 feet, large enough to provide satellite communications for the entire US.
But even more special was the fact that this satellite was, unlike any of the other satellites my husband’s company builds – communications satellites for various countries or for Intelsat, weather satellites for the weather service – this satellite was commissioned by a small start-up company. Only 50 people. All part owners of the company. And so they all came to watch the launch with their spouses and small children. Their entire company rested on a successful launch. And the riskiest part of a satellite launch is from the launch pad to orbit. Risk of the rocket exploding on the launch pad, an explosion as it is being hurled into space, or a failure during the separation stage. Satellites take 3 years to build. Even though insured, a replacement satellite would take at least 2 years to build. A big risk for a start-up ahead of the competition with new technology and leading-edge ideas.
And so it was, with breaths held in, that everyone watched from the balcony of the observation platform as the rocket’s engines began to spew billowing smoke and with a roar, the huge weight rose from the launch platform. The cheer was heard from the crowd and everyone hurried to the monitors to view the rocket perform through it’s roll and booster separation stages. Mission control provided ongoing updates of the status of the satellite – 5,000 miles above the earth, 10,000 miles until, 30 minutes later, it reached it’s destination 19,400 miles high over Australia where the satellite module performed it’s final separation from the rocket, free to use it’s own thrusters to raise to it’s final elevation and begin to unfurl it’s solar arrays. It would be several weeks until it was completely positioned with the antenna unfurled and ready to begin to transmit but the high-risk part was over and everyone could breath a sigh of relief. A successful launch! It was a thrilling event to attend.
One of the company’s Board of Directors said “I’ve been on the Board of many start-ups. But never in my life have I had the experience where so much rested on 30 minutes.”
But was he right? True, it was very apparent the risk and rewards of that 30 minute timeframe. But are other time periods, other moments of lesser importance? In Dan Millman’s “The Peaceful Warrior” books, Dan’s teacher Socrates, drives home the lesson that there are no ordinary moments. Socrates teaches to be aware of your every movement and to appreciate every task. That the more we are able to live in the moment, the more we get from our lives.
How does this apply to companies and managers? It’s surprising how often companies have no real direction or worse, no sense of urgency. Most companies think they have both yet an outsider can easily see that they are not moving forward but rather in a circle. March’s blog talks about the use of metrics to measure the real progress. But you can also recognize moving in a circle in other ways. How often have you been to meetings and realize that the same meeting was held six months or a year ago with the same resulting list of goals or same decision yet people walked out of the meeting and months later there was no action. Often we move along in a daze, without making progress towards the goal but not recognizing it, much activity but very little progress. Measuring progress with metrics is a way to tell how you’ve done. But to really be effective, one must be very focused on the small details, all of the pieces – each moment where a decision or lack of action can make the difference between success and failure. So when we think that it’s OK to just do the minimum required to meet a schedule, that as long as we deliver something on time, even though we know it has a minor quality problem here or a known issue there, we are saying those are the ordinary actions most companies do and they squeak by so why shouldn’t we? Why should we keep trying for perfection when we can get buy with less?
A 30-minute launch is extremely spectacular but let’s not forget that moments that seem ordinary can end up having a huge impact downstream. If we could recognize how special each moment is and act accordingly, wow. Wouldn’t that be spectacular.