Project Management – How It Took Us to the Moon and Back

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon! It was a remarkable feat, and arguably the most significant program success of the 20th century. It reflected our drive, ingenuity and teamwork.  The most critical factor to success NASA’s decision to implement and reinforce a formal and consistent approach to project management – a first for ANY government organization.

When President Kennedy announced in 1961 “by the end of the decade we would land a man on the moon and bring him home safely” many thought it an impossible mission.  At the time NASA was a young organization and had not put an astronaut into orbit.  The US program trailed the Russians by at least three years.  There were many unknown unknowns.   Success would require the invention and production of technologies and facilities that did not exist at the time.    Thousands of hours of manned space flight would be required before an actual landing attempt.  Over 350,000 contractors would need to be hired and managed across three complex programs:  Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.  Communication was going to be difficult with facilities spread across not only the US but globally as well. And of course. the 250.000 miles to the moon.  All these challenges and more had to be surmounted with a deadline that was less than 8 years.  The probability that the initiative would fail was extremely high.

To offset the risk of failure, NASA early on took the critical step of creating a “system” of practical and proven project and program management processes, tools and techniques.  Leading this initiative were NASA engineers experienced in project management.  They canvassed best practices from private sector firms and government organizations and blended them into a practical and proven approach to project and program management.  This included key communication processes and guidelines for facilitating all types of meetings to include planning and problem solving.   Visualization and round robin techniques were used religiously.  This formal approach was applied consistently across all projects, programs and the contractors and their firms.  It was not uncommon for NASA program managers to state “there’s the door” to contractors or vendors that wanted to use their own project management methodologies.  It was in this environment that NASA accomplished what many thought impossible: putting men on the moon and bringing them back safely.  And it was in this environment that we safely returned the three astronauts of Apollo 13 home.  Without a formal and consistently applied approach to project management, we would not have succeeded.

NASA understood then and now that project management is the universal leadership discipline for ensuring project and program success and the importance of applying it consistently across their organization.  What about your organization?  How many flavors of project management exist?   Do vendors tell you what project management approach they will use, or do you require they utilize your approach and rigor?   Are there elements in your organization trying to sell the idea that project management can be replaced by methodologies used to produce specific solutions, i.e. Six Sigma (process improvement) and Agile (software development)?  Contact me if you would like to find out how you can rapidly and successfully implement a practical and proven leadership discipline across your organization.   You may not go to the moon and back, but you will out execute your competition.