Project Management on Mars at PMI Global Congress

Mars rover CuriosityOn the last day of PMI Global Congress 2013, an out-of-this-world project manager named Dr. John Grotzinger spoke to PMPs from across the globe about his lessons learned from a cutting-edge, international project: he managed the Curiosity project as the chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory rover mission. Whoa.

After seven minutes of terror, the rover Curiosity landed on Mars in early August 2012. A series of new and complicated techniques were required to land this Mini Cooper-sized rover into a crater. Curiosity’s mission is to determine whether Mars was or is capable of sustaining microbial life.

While the subject matter is light years away from what PMPs typically work on, the project management lessons are still the same. Here are four that Dr. Grotzinger said were most important: 

1. Have a bold vision. Discovering if there is life on other planets is a pretty bold vision. Dr. Grotzinger noted that when you continually state your objective to your team, no matter how big it is—his was over 6,000 team members in 15 countries!—you’re all working toward a shared goal. Inspiration is a powerful motivator. It means that every team member is on the same mission and has buy-in to see it succeed.

2. Test and re-test. Looking at the all prototypes that the mission went through was astonishing. Every screw, arm, computer chip, etc., had to be tested for velocity, heat, and failure. If it couldn’t be tested, it wasn’t part of the mission. This saved time and money in the long run and mitigated risk. What this means is that just because you think something will work doesn’t mean it will.

3. Admit when you’re wrong. Find the root cause of failure and be willing to expose and admit your mistakes. Essentially, Grotzinger’s bosses’ boss was the President of the United States, and Grotzinger had to tell them that they couldn’t meet the deadline by two years! That’s a pretty big miss, but it provided time to take advantage of new opportunities and take an in-depth look at what went wrong so they could make sure the entire project went right.

4. Be flexible with your plan. Planning is great, but taking calculated risks means that you might be able to meet your objective in a different way than originally planned. Curiosity photographed some interesting rocks, but they were in the exact opposite direction of its planned route. By taking an educational and calculated risk, the Rover went toward the rocks and found mineral deposits that support the theory that microbial life could live on Mars. The goal and mission are the most important things, and plans are essential, but flexibility and seizing opportunities can get you to your goals well.

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