The essence of a team

FORMER astronaut Mike Mullane couldn't give NATM convention attendees a free ticket into space during his keynote speech, so he gave them the next-best thing: a vicarious trip on a space-shuttle launch.

Mullane, who was selected as a Mission Specialist in 1978 in the first group of Space Shuttle Astronauts and completed three space missions aboard the shuttles Discovery (STS-41D) and Atlantis (STS-27 & 36), asked attendees to suspend their disbelief and pretend they were fellow crew members.

After blastoff, they traveled at five miles per second — a “short, violent, and terrifying” burst — until they were 200 miles above the earth.

Then he asked them, “If all of you had been tied to four million pounds of propellant, what type of team would you want holding your life in your palm?”

He said he had a lot of time to think about that, and his answer was, “The best.”

How does a team get to be the best? He said it's by practicing the fundamentals and doing things fastidiously every day until they are as natural as breathing. It applies to trailer manufacturing just as it does to shuttle missions.

His big three fundamentals:

  • Everybody must understand the normalization of deviance.

    “It's that natural human tendency, especially in pressure circumstances, to want to accept lower standards of performance — take a shortcut,” he said. “You have a job to do. You know what the standards are and have everything in place to meet the standards. But because of the pressure, you say, ‘I'm going to take a shortcut.’ And guess what? Nothing bad happens. The boss doesn't holler, nobody is injured, and you don't lose a customer. What does that do? It reinforces the rightness of that decision. The next time you find yourself in a pressure situation, you're going to be tempted to take the shortcut again.

    “You do that enough times and the deviance has been normalized into your behavior. You're completely oblivious to it. It's invisible to you that you're taking a shortcut. This is the killer of teams. It leads to predictable surprises. And in almost all cases, the predictable surprise isn't pleasant.” He said the “catastrophic structural breakup” of the Challenger shuttle in 1986 — which killed all seven crew members — was a “predictable surprise” that should have been avoided. The Rogers Commission concluded that the O-ring seal flaw was well-known but not addressed because of NASA's organizational culture.

  • Everybody must understand the essence of responsibility.

    He said he was in the second seat of an F-111 fighter bomber during a test mission. The commander, wanting to continue gathering data, ignored a dashboard warning to return to the base or risk running out of fuel. Mullane “knew it was a problem,” but said nothing. They ran out of fuel and had to eject.

    “Why do we do it? We have a reluctance to being in confrontation. We have a fierce need to be accepted. We don't want to jeopardize friendships. We defer to people who have been in the organization longer and have loftier positions. If they aren't seeing what we're seeing, we can't possibly be right. People are out there on a team who want to make the team better, safer, and more efficient. But then they think and rationalize, It challenges the status quo. How will my actions be perceived? Might they be perceived that I'm a troublemaker? I'd better not take the chance. We fall into the passenger mode. Leaders should convey the message, ‘My door's always open. I value the perspective you bring to the team.’ ”

  • The team is filled with courageous self-leaders.

    “Nobody ever achieves personal and professional success because of destiny or because it's written in the stars. No, it all flows from self-leadership. I am not an astronaut because it was written in the stars. We all learn lessons in self-leadership from different areas: parents, former bosses, scoutmasters, teachers. We learn lessons and apply them. Courageous self-leaders challenge themselves and set the bar very high. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or superman to have great things happen. It begins with goal-setting. Self-leaders establish lofty goals, accept the things they can't change, don't quit, and make corrections around obstacles.”

    Mullane has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and is the recipient of many awards, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, and the NASA Space Flight Medal. Since his retirement from NASA and the Air Force in 1990, Mullane has written an award-winning children's book, Liftoff! An Astronaut's Dream, and a popular space-fact book, Do Your Ears Pop In Space? His recently published memoir, Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, (Scribner, hardcover), has been reviewed in the New York Times and on the John Stewart Daily Show.

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