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The Importance of Being Clear

The difference between success and failure is often seemingly little things. For managers it is often the "little things" that deliver big results. John F. Kennedy is given credit for setting in motion NASA’s successful moon landing mission in the 1960s. He said before a joint session of Congress 50 years ago, “This nation should commit to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The importance of Kennedy’s proclamation is well established but a few lesser-known stories tell why his statement was so effective.

As reported in a recent blog by Morten Hansen, the goal of landing on the moon was not shared by all in 1961. In fact, the head of NASA at the time, James Webb, argued for another goal: “preeminence in space.” Here is a heated conversation between Kennedy and Webb arguing the goal:

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 to 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."

Kennedy clearly chose clarity and a specific target over broad and grandiose rhetoric. This decision was critical in focusing the efforts of the large, diffuse space and aeronautic entities, as well as other stakeholders such as Congress and the American public.

This clarity helped those inside the various agencies move beyond turf battles and competing visions. For example, at the time of Kennedy’s pronouncement, several agencies were already promoting different modes of lunar exploration; at least 3 approaches were being pursued. One of the approaches championed by Wernher Von Braun of the Marshal Space Flight Center was the “earth orbit mode.” But Von Braun and his team ended up supporting the alternative lunar orbit because it offered the best chance of meeting the aggressive time goal of “this decade.”

So while Kennedy’s vision is often lauded in his famous statement, the real keys seem to be relatively basic management tenets:

  • First, choose a course of action. In retrospect the decision to go to the moon seems rational, but it was made in an environment that was very much uncertain. Note Webb’s admonition that he would “like more time” to gain public consensus.

  • Second, Kennedy was concrete and specific rather than vague and abstract. Concrete clarity is a fundamental management concept, but one very difficult to follow. It would be easier to gain consensus around "preeminence in space," just as it is easy to gain consensus around being a "world-class leader" in your industry. Being clear and concrete, however, allows people to focus their efforts in some harmony, rather than working at cross purposes.
So how can you apply this to your work as the one in charge? Consider these as a start:
  • Insist on not being vague. This is easier said than done, but it is essential in order to help people focus on the right things. It is hard, because it requires a decision in the face of uncertainty—Kennedy had no way of knowing success could be had (and certainly, many in the space program had their doubts). To fall back on vague goals like “preeminence in space” is a way of putting off decision. As the person in charge, you will have to be clear even when it requires courage to do so.

  • In your planning work, when identifying desired consequences or the outcomes to be accomplished, be specific about not just what is to be achieved or accomplished but when it must occur. For even the enormous consequence of sending a man to the moon, Kennedy gave a target date that was essential in focusing the efforts of those who had to make it happen.
There was no doubt what Kennedy was talking about—and what he was saying about it. You cannot say the same for Webb. Can managers afford not to be clear and concrete in outcomes they ask others to accomplish? The simple answer is no.

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