In 1961 President Kennedy set a goal for the United States: ”I believe 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 the Earth.”
In 1962, the President and James Webb, then NASA’s Chief Administrator, had an important recorded conversation discussing whether the United States goal was also the mission for NASA. Theodore Kinni, in his article, A Goal Isn’t a Mission, notes that President Kennedy asked Mr. Webb “do you think this program is the top priority of the agency?” Webb responded, “No, sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top-priority programs…”
This revealed a chasm between the two men. Kennedy viewed the space race as the extraterrestrial front in the ongoing Cold War. Landing a man on the moon was the finish line in that race, and he intended to cross first. “Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.” In other words, this BHAG (i.e., Big, hairy, audacious goal) for the United States foreign policy was how he viewed the mission of NASA.
Using Simon Sinek’s framework, in The Infinite Game, this was a finite game with known players, fixed rules and a clear endpoint. For Webb, the Mission of NASA – “preeminence in space” – was an infinite game: it had changeable rules, with no defined endpoint; there are no winners or losers—only ahead and behind. As a result, this debate continued long after that meeting,
As John Longsdon notes in John Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, the conversation continued after the meet and influenced future commitments related to NASA. They seemed to have resolved the argument by meeting in the middle: “(S)subsequent to their interaction (President Kennedy) was saying “our goal is to be first in every aspect of space”. Webb tried to maintain a balance in NASA’s programs, as it focused on sciences and human space flight, but made it clear that he understood: “My Boss said
Get a man on the moon before the Russians”, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
On July 20, Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind” on the moon. Webb had already resigned and his concerns for a mission-less future for NASA manifested itself: President Johnson started cutting NASA’s budget years before Apollo 11 and the final scheduled landings were canceled in the Nixon Administration.
I write this blog during the 20th year remembrance of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. While some scientists wanted to postpone the takeoff for safety concerns with the shuttle’s heat shields, a “management” decision on the importance of having the flight take place led to the catastrophe.
There are at least three important lessons from this story.
- A mission should always take the form of an infinite game; a goal can be finite
- When a company doubles down on a goal of great importance – that doesn’t change your mission
- In a larger organization, people will have different perspectives, and need to voice them and find ways of resolving them properly.
- They are the ones who lead us into the future.