3 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From NASA About Organizational Design

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One of the greatest technological achievements of the past millennium was the moon landing of 1969. When John F. Kennedy first committed the U.S. to landing on the moon, people thought he was crazy: with a short time frame, no predefined plan and an extremely complex system, the moon landing was a seemingly impossible organizational challenge for NASA.

But it happened. Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man that wasn’t just a giant leap for mankind -- it was also a giant leap for organizational culture.

Leading the project was the legendary Wernher von Braun. But it was George E. Mueller, a man from St. Louis, Missouri, who revolutionized NASA’s organization, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s wrote in his book Team of Teams.

Mueller brought a systems-engineering perspective to NASA’s structure. He threw out the organizational charts, broke down silos and forced information-sharing through the central control room. It took some convincing, but in time, even Braun embraced plan.

In the days of the assembly line, workers did one thing to one part and moved it on to the next person. For predictable, repetitive tasks, this approach worked perfectly, but it could never put a man on the moon.

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By contrast, the innovative organizations of today must solve new and highly complex problems quickly. Shared contextual understanding is key to this success, but it’s often the first thing lost as companies develop hierarchies for perceived efficiency.

NASA couldn’t have flat management, but it did minimize organizational layers. Mueller implemented a lot of tricks to build trust and ensure information flowed freely. By following his lead, a company can transform a disconnected pack of competitive employees into a single, unified team.

Here’s how:

1. Define core values and a shared company purpose. 

This was easy for the Apollo program: Kennedy had spelled out a grand purpose when he created the initiative. Executing the plan might not be easy, but by clearly defining a major goal the program attracted and retained the right people and set the team’s shared compass.

This cultural framework can drive hiring decisions, help weed out those who aren’t aligned with the vision and create one big goal that excites and inspires the team. As people aligned to the same values grow in number, a bond of trust will form within the organization.

2. Empower cross-functional teams. 

During the Apollo program, Mueller formed cross-functional teams to solve problems more quickly. Roles and responsibilities blended and overlapped, replacing previously well-defined positions. Some engineers became executive managers responsible for policy, administration and even finance. Without the need for approval or handoffs, these self-sufficient teams were much more productive.

The project's complexity required teams to shift to a model in which everyone understood the entire context.

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At Coplex, a Los Angeles-based interactive marketing agency, we implement scrum agile methodology to keep teams working together in an adaptive environment. Daily "ceremonies" allow us to share information, infuse transparency into projects and encourage collaboration. This methodology reduces or even eliminates handoffs between teams and departments, focusing instead on co-creation.

Instead of handing down diktats from on high, tell team leaders to follow their instincts and send memos later. Instilling this outlook will empower your team, increase innovation and create ownership from within.

3. Create ‘wires’ between teams. 

During the Apollo program, NASA implemented daily cross-team huddles utilizing a state-of-the art teleservices network. In addition, it had a central control room where teams would come together to monitor overall progress. Individuals could also directly communicate with their counterparts on other teams.

Create these collaboration "wires" in your own organization using messaging tools such as Slack or Ryver, cross-team meetings or even your own mission control room. These bonds can go beyond the workday with game nights, lunches and conferences or events. Friendship drives communication and builds trust.

The organizations we build and the problems we solve continue to become more complex -- we need this systems engineering approach to organizational design to create the innovative and high-touch organizations of tomorrow.

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