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The “Man on the Moon” Standard

August 26, 2011

Fifty years ago today, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and announced, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Since then, the “Man on the Moon” goal has become one of the most compelling, unifying goals ever articulated by a leader. So, on this anniversary, it is worthwhile to pause and highlight what made it so special — qualities that every manager can emulate in crafting a common goal.

As I wrote in the book Collaboration, Kennedy’s goal had four attributes that made it great: common fate, simple and concrete, passion, and competition on the outside (the Soviets). Here I highlight two, along with two “forgotten” stories that made the goal so special.

Simple and Concrete

When most leaders seek to unify a fragmented company, they become vague — “be the best,” “pre-eminent,” or “the largest” whatever. Kennedy went the other way; he became simple, concrete, and finite. This looks obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t so fifty years ago. Back then, NASA head James Webb wanted another goal — preeminence in space. During a meeting in the White House between the two men, a heated exchange took place (recorded in transcripts released 39 years later):

Kennedy:“Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians.”Webb: “Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space…”

Kennedy: “I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this [landing on the Moon] is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.”

Webb: “I’d like to have more time to talk about that because there is a wide public sentiment coming along in this country for preeminence in space.”

Kennedy: “If you’re trying to prove preeminence, this is the way to prove preeminence. … Those that are not essential to the Lunar program, that help contribute over a broad spectrum to our preeminence in space, are secondary.”

That was clear language. Landing on the Moon was the only thing that mattered; no more talking about “preeminence.” Webb got it. The lesson: Go from the abstract to the concrete, from the convoluted to the simple. If employees can’t recite your goal at the snap of a finger, you’re not there.

Common Fate

The goal must unite people. That’s what happened in the Apollo program, where there could have been rampant fighting between agencies and the 400,000 people working on the program. A crucial decision was to select the “mode” — how to land a spacecraft on the Moon. At the outset, different organizations pushed different proposals: using a powerful rocket to send a spaceship directly to the moon; starting by circling the Earth and then catapulting a landing craft to the Moon; and circling the Moon and sending in a small landing ship.

Each organization was wedded to a particular mode. The Marshall Space Flight Center, headed by Wernher Von Braun, a towering figure in space exploration, had invested in one mode, the Earth orbit mode. Both his center and the other powerful NASA center — the Manned Spacecraft Center — were skeptical of the alternative ideas. But looming large in the background was Kennedy’s goal —: It had to be done by the end of the decade. Putting aside different viewpoints, the various groups worked together to arrive at a decision. In a stunning reversal, Von Braun and his team abandoned their quest for the Earth orbit mode and endorsed the Lunar orbit idea. Von Braun stated that, when judged according to Kennedy’s goal, the Lunar orbit mode was the best: “We believe this program offers the highest confidence factor of successful accomplishment within this decade.”

The biggest benefit of a common-fate goal is that it elevates the aspiration of people to something bigger than parochial goals. It unifies.

Setting a common goal is not difficult. Crafting a great compelling common goal that lives up the standard of President Kennedy’s requires hard work and imagination. Do your goals meet the “Man on the Moon” standard?

Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley (School of Information) and at INSEAD, France. He is the author of Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009).

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