Former Director of Mission Operations for NASA’s human spaceflight, Paul Sean Hill, offers another excerpt from his new book, ‘Mission Control Management’.
Embrace the morality
The critical awareness that Mission Control lost and rediscovered in our management roles is that everything we do contributes to the organisation’s success or failure, not just in our individual jobs but in the organisation’s core purpose.
In the Mission Control Room, it is that awareness that leads to a shared ownership, not just in the outcome but in how we perform and why we make every decision.
We hold ourselves and each other accountable for applying the real-time morality: for asking the ‘whys’, focusing on finding the right answer – not just winning the debate – and having the courage to speak up and take actions that will best protect the astronauts and accomplish the mission.
Passing judgement in this way becomes second nature in the Mission Control Room, which further increases trust and strengthens team performance, especially in intimidating situations, where mistakes can have immediately catastrophic results.
Evolving a team to high-trust leadership hinges on embracing the real-time morality, not just at the working level but also as managers.
However, as we move away from the real-time decision-making and the risk of immediate catastrophe, the management cloud gradually lures us into also leaving behind that specific, enabling morality.
As the responsibilities and pressures in the management cloud increasingly dominate managers’ daily experience, they can dilute the willingness to pass the same deliberate judgement that becomes second nature in the Mission Control Room.
As a result, in our management roles, we risk losing alignment and leaving behind the critical, high-trust behaviours as we make decisions that can cost us customers, bankrupt the organisation, impact workforce performance and risk us failing in our core purpose.
Finding our way back from ‘no ripples in the pond’ to the real-time morality in our management roles first required us to relearn this awareness. Thus, Mission Control’s most important lesson from benchmarking wasn’t any particular practice we found. It was the realisation that we were contributing to our problems – not solving them.
That realisation was enough to help us overcome our individual discomfort with passing judgement against our organisation, management practices and individual behaviours. Our core purpose and responsibility were still too important to each of us to risk our organisation’s performance by refusing to change our low-trust management practices.
We clung to that initial awareness as we explored new ideas in our book-club discussions and applied them to our management practices. As our management team evolved, we became more comfortable judging our practices and ourselves, and talking in terms of core purpose and values.
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It became second nature to pass judgement in management forums in terms of our transparency, values alignment and engagement. As we turned to effective, high-trust leadership and common purpose, the necessary behaviour changes become more obvious, and more natural.
Each step we took then reinforced the awareness and our natural tendencies for higher-trust behaviours, just as each element of the real-time morality reinforces the next.
Evolving a team to high-trust leadership hinges on embracing the real-time morality, not just at the working level but also as managers. That is exactly what we accomplish as we learn to remain deliberately mindful of our shared core purpose, transparency, values alignment and engagement, and continuously reinforce that awareness and mindfulness in our behaviour.
The management team’s culture shifts deliberately to clarity over diplomacy – one that preserves the integrity in ongoing practices – and an environment that prizes continuous judgement based on the shared morality.
Rather than allowing the management cloud to dilute the connection to their core purpose, the real-time morality empowers a leadership team to preserve the connection, just as it does for the team in the Mission Control Room.
Trust elements of the real-time morality
At the working level (left), in a high-trust environment (middle) and in management (right)
Evolve your team
Embracing the deliberate morality and evolving to a high-trust leadership culture and management practices is repeatable in any leadership team, not just in Mission Control.
The morality and awareness empower the leadership team to have the uncomfortable discussions, make critical judgements and choose to be as deliberate in all facets of management as in any critical decision-making. With this focus, the team can then explore ideas to increase trust, understand and articulate core values and purpose, and align as a leadership team.
The resulting leadership culture entails high-trust and fully transparent engagement among the senior leaders in the same way that successful spaceflight requires high trust and full transparency from the flight control team.
After the Mission Control management team had made this journey together, our management practices had fundamentally changed to reflect the deliberate cultural shift.
These practices were the result of both embracing the real-time morality in our management ranks and implementing the specific behaviours that ensured we truly walked the talk – and didn’t simply profess alignment.