Books Leadership

On Mission Operations

I recently wrapped up my first big read of 2021, Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not An Option. Gene, played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13, was a NASA Flight Director through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo era of spaceflight, and played a tremendous role in establishing the culture for NASA’s Mission Operations.

As a part of this role, Gene codified guiding principles for Mission Operations in his “Foundations of Mission Operations”, reading as follows:

The Foundations of Mission Operations

  1. To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence:

    • Discipline: Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.
    • Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.
    • Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.
    • Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.
    • Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.
    • Vigilance: Always attentive to the dangers of spaceflight; never accepting success as a substitute for rigor in everything we do.
  2. To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.
  3. To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I find these principles from Gene and Mission Control (note: “Vigilance” was added after the Columbia disaster) helpful in thinking through the kinds of things I want to instill in teams I lead. While building a consumer app (or any other startup, for that matter) isn’t identical to putting people into space and bringing them back safely, there are analogues.

In some companies, you’ll hear of values like “Act Like an Owner” or “Bring Your Whole Self” or the like. At Bunches, we talk about identities and qualities more than corporate values, which often equate to behaviors. I’m a huge believer that if we are the right kinds of people, then behaviors will follow. At Bunches, we have four core “values” or identities that we seek to encourage in one another: Builder, Knower, Leader, Learner.

In each of these identities, I see echoes of Kranz’s qualities, and reading the stories from his days at NASA are a great reminder of what an honor it is to lead people to become better versions of themselves in pursuit of a singular outcome, whether it’s building a moonshot company or literally putting astronauts on the lunar surface.

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