Were you as amazed and thrilled by Elon Musk and team’s feat in launching Falcon Heavy + roadster with Starman, on February 6 as I was? My delight at a massive bet that paid off, couldn’t match Musk’s own. “Holy flying f—,” Musk says in the video, seconds after the Falcon Heavy pushed off the launch pad. “That thing took off.” Watching the rocket go skyward, Musk exclaimed, “That is unreal.”
At a press conference later that day he told reporters, “Crazy things can come true. I didn’t really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it’s amazing when they do.”
I can’t claim that an organization design/transformation project could generate anything like the same reaction as the crowds at the launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. If only they did. We don’t celebrate success of a project in much of a way. Maybe we should. As Elon Musk said “I’ve seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it’s a big relief for when it actually works.”
What I loved about the Falcon Heavy is the sense of the absurd harboured within immense endeavour. Musk’s roadster car with Starman figure is the payload, “It’s just literally a normal car in space — I kind of like the absurdity of that,” Musk said. “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly, fun things are important … I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world, and it’s still tripping me out.’
I don’t see much silliness and fun in leaders of organisation transformation. And it’s a pity we don’t encourage it, because, as Musk says – that’s what’s going to get people excited. (Or not)
In the same week as the Falcon Heavy take-off, I was in a programme planning meeting (on organisation transformation), where the question of ‘do-ability’ of what we’d designed and planned came up. It’s not in the same league as off to orbit Mars but it’s important in our micro universe.
Asking if something’s do-able is a good question. What are the conditions necessary for making an aspiration or a plan do-able? Are there common factors of ‘do-ability’ that we should look out for? Learning from Musk’s and the Starman venture we can identify:
- A leader capable of putting together a truly expert team of people dedicated to achieving the common mission even if it looks like a big risk at the outset. Musk points out that ‘there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.’
- Having enough cash and other resources available to fund the project from initiation to outcome (and onwards)
- Doing a lot of planning and accepting you can’t plan for everything. “We’ve done all the (computer) modeling we could think of,” he said. “We’ve asked … third parties to double check the calculations, make sure we haven’t made any mistakes. So, we’re not aware of any issues, nobody has been able to point out any fundamental issues. In theory it should work. But where theory and reality collide, reality wins.”
- Showing a reasonable sense that things might not work out but that whatever the outcome there are great learning opportunities. “It would be a really huge downer if it blows up. But hopefully, if something goes wrong, it goes wrong far into the mission so we at least learn as much as possible along the way,” said Musk at Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the flight
- Being willing to say clearly that this is not going to be right first time. Musk pointed out, “This is a test mission. We don’t want to set expectations of perfection by any means.’ (He put the odds of a successful flight at somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent which is the often quoted, but maybe not accurate, success rate for change and transformation projects)
- Recognising that modeling and scenario planning are not failsafe. For Falcon Heavy, ‘It is also difficult to model the vibration and acoustic environment at the base of the rocket where the 27 Merlin engines will be firing. The engines were test fired at the pad on Jan. 24 and SpaceX said later there were no problems. But, Musk warned Monday, “there’s so much that can go wrong here.”’
- Giving an implementation timeline but being prepared to move it out. Musk, ‘the SpaceX CEO is known for his — let’s call them “aspirational” — timelines.’
- Having done the planning, then being willing to take the risk of moving ahead knowing things may not work out. As Musk says ‘you’ve got to take big chances in order for the potential for a big positive outcome’
Now I’m looking at that list and thinking that isn’t totally convincing as a complete list of do-ability criteria. It’s a good start, but insufficient because Musk is not your average programme director or middle manager.
Most project do-ability conditions are also about more prosaic things like maintaining business as usual while introducing the new ways, working with sudden budget cuts or loss of key staff, overcoming the difficulties inherent in patched together legacy IT systems, having the ability to change organisational policies and rules, overcoming the long shadow previous transformations cast, working through the organisational politics, and being reasonably confident that organisational data is valid, current, reliable, and easily accessible (quite often not the case). I’ll add those to my list.
What are your project do-ability criteria? How do you create the conditions to make a project do-able? Let me know.
Image: The roadster in space
If you want to know where the roadster + starman is now, look here where there is an up to date tracker.