Of the many stories that came out of NASA’s Apollo space program, one of my favourites is the story about the janitor who upon being asked by a reporter what his job was in the organization replied “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon”. Now, whether this story is true or not doesn’t really matter as it exemplifies the general sentiment shared by everyone involved in that project; that regardless of how large or visible their contribution was, they all felt a genuine and direct connection between the work they did and that moment when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the Moon.
In many ways, this prevalent feeling of connecting to a shared purpose and sense of being active contributors to the Apollo space program is as much a noteworthy and admirable accomplishment as their collective feat of sending men to walk on our celestial neighbour in the night sky. And it’s certainly an accomplishment that many leaders and their organizations would like to duplicate within their own workforce in order to increase their global competitiveness through their ability to innovate and create.
So what can this anecdote of the NASA janitor teach us about driving innovation and fostering a strong sense of collective purpose within our own teams? Here’s a few ideas for starters:
1. Encourage your employees to transform your vision into their story
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. - John F. Kennedy
Many of us are familiar with President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University where he made the announcement of his government’s plan to put into high gear the creation of a space program that would send a man to the Moon. Without question it’s an inspiring speech, but notice how in the quote above, Kennedy draws the attention of his constituents to three key elements – he stated the goal he had for the country and their scientific/engineering community, he defined a clear time-frame for when he wanted this goal to be reached and finally, he openly recognized that this wasn’t going to be easy to accomplish, but offsets this by inspiring his followers by pointing out that nothing worth achieving comes easy.
Of course, Kennedy’s inspiring speech alone didn’t spur on the creativity and innovation which made the Apollo space program such a success. Instead, this was a result of the project’s leaders encouraging their employees to write themselves into the organization’s story as key players who could help to make this vision a reality.
In the case of the NASA janitor, he was doing his part in helping to land a man on the Moon by taking care of the day-to-day tasks of keeping the place clean, so those above him could focus instead on meeting the long-term needs of the science, engineering, and administration teams as the program moved ahead. By making this vision his own personal story, the janitor could easily see the connection between his contributions and the organization’s goals.
One important lesson we can learn from this story is to provide your employees with opportunities to take your vision and transform it into their own story in which they play an integral part. In addition to creating an environment that fosters creativity and innovation, this will also allow your employees to work with more autonomy and self-efficacy, which will encourage a higher sense of purpose for their efforts.
Remember that while inspiration might get you in the door, it’s only through allowing others to make the story their own that leaders will truly be able to shape the direction their organization ultimately takes.
2. Offer a shared goal that challenges your employees to rise above
Whether it’s solving crossword or Sudoku puzzles, playing video games, or trying to climb to the top of a mountain, one thing we all share in common is the pleasure of taking on a challenge. Indeed, a common thread in most stories shared around the world is how the protagonist faces an insurmountable challenge which they overcome by the end of the tale. Granted, sometimes it comes with a heavy cost, but even in those stories, there’s a palpable sense of admiration for the protagonist for pushing ahead and winning the day.
In the case of the Apollo space program, it was viewed by many to be an near-impossible task, if not also a very expensive one. And yet, when faced with this daunting challenge, employees at the various organizations involved in the program didn’t feel as though too much was being asked of them. On the contrary, there was a clear drive to prove – both to themselves and to the world – that they had “the right stuff” to make this happen.
That’s why it’s important for leaders to understand that if you really want your innovation measures to take hold, you can’t play it safe in suggesting minor modifications or additions to what’s already being produced or offered. Instead, you need to push your employees by offering them a challenge that seems daunting, coupled with demonstrating to your team your trust and belief that – like the teams behind the Apollo space program – they have what it takes to make it a reality.
3. Rally the “energizers” in your team to help promote your vision
When most of us think about the Apollo space program, the first people that come to mind are the astronauts, followed by the scientific and engineering teams that designed and built the spacecraft that allowed these men to travel safely to the Moon and back. This is only natural as it’s hard to imagine the program’s accomplishments without the participation of these various groups in the project. While their technical proficiency and unique talents certainly contributed to the program’s success, the story of this NASA janitor reveals another element that played an even bigger role in this historic achievement.
In his book, “Good Boss, Bad Boss”, Bob Sutton describes a survey that was performed to ascertain what types of employees tend to become top performers who motivate others to succeed as well. The survey authors hypothesized that “people who were renowned for having expertise, spreading technical knowledge, and best positioned to gather and weave together information from others would be seen as top performers”.
What they discovered instead is that employees who energized others were more likely to get promoted and achieve other success benchmarks, as well as developing a workplace that had a higher rate of employee retention. What made these individuals “energizers” was not that they were more outgoing or charismatic than others in their team. Instead, as Sutton points out, such individuals “create energy via optimism about the possibilities ahead, fully engaging the person right in front of them right now, valuing others’ ideas, and helping people feel as if they are making progress.”
When Kennedy first announced his vision of sending a man to the Moon within the decade, there were many talented scientists and engineers who believed his plan was unrealistic, if not almost impossible to achieve given the limitations of their current technology. As such, the only way NASA could spur the imagination and creativity needed to drive innovation in their program was by identifying those “energizers” who they could count on as early adopters of this vision. These “energizers” were able to encourage their fellow scientists and engineers to shift their beliefs from ‘this can’t be done’ to ‘why not’.
This is no doubt what happened to the janitor in our story who, thanks to the words and actions of one of these “energizers”, felt a tangible connection both to the project and to everyone involved in it, motivating him to invest a personal stake into seeing this venture succeed.
Similarly, leaders need to understand that in promoting a new initiative to your team, you need to find those “energizers” in your organization who are not only able to view the changes in a positive light, but who can also help encourage other team members to get on board as well. And if you find there are still some doubters among the ranks, listen to their concerns and see how they might be addressed, but make sure you rely on these “energizers” to help you keep the momentum going to avoid getting mired in debate and over-analysis.
Remember that before Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon, there was a common belief among the population that ‘they will never land a man on the Moon’. It was only by focusing on the positive energy generated by these “energizers”within their organization that NASA was able to unflinchingly press ahead and prove these naysayers wrong.
Clearly, these lessons are not straight forward, cut-and-paste tactics that leaders can drop kick into their organization in the hopes of fostering the creativity and innovation that was at the heart of the Apollo space program. If nothing else, though, they help to reinforce the importance of communication and listening to nurturing an environment where everyone in the organization feels they have something significant to contribute to the organization’s shared goal.
From this vantage point it’s easy to see that, in our own ways, each of us is just like that janitor – toiling away on what might seem like an insignificant task, that is until we’re reminded of how we’re doing our part in helping to put our own organization’s version of a man on the Moon.