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The NASA mission to Mars: a really complex challenge

Have you been as awe-struck at the images coming from NASA’s Mars InSight lander as we have? The NASA mission to Mars hit a major milestone this week: an unmanned spacecraft made a perfect landing 300 million miles from its starting point on planet Earth – after almost ten years of planning (the original proposals for what became InSight were submitted in 2010. In Strategic Doing, we talk about complex challenges, but this accomplishment redefines the word complex. And, it’s just a step on the way to NASA’s ultimate goal of putting humans on the red planet.

The team at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab had the opportunity to work with several groups at NASA last year in a series of three workshops – not those working on the InSight project, but those working in the life sciences areas of the agency. As is the case in most large organizations, there are units that clearly share some common goals and could benefit from working together, but for whatever reason that doesn’t happen – or at least, it doesn’t happen as frequently or intensely as NASA’s leaders would like. The work with NASA was challenging, because it forced the Lab’s team to re-think about several components of Strategic Doing. Two in particular are worth a mention here:

Timing

What does the “30/30” concept mean if you’re going to be deploying it over not just months, but decades (the timeline at that point was ~37 years until humans can take that next “giant step for mankind”)?  Which parts of the process can NASA use to help move their work forward, even if they’re not going to take the entire 10 rules sequence into their everyday work?

Complexity

NASA’s work really is, well, rocket science. Our Big Easy framework (in which we take a look at both impact and ease of execution) doesn’t quite capture what’s needed for these kinds of challenges. The Lab team ended up working with NASA leaders to develop a matrix that had a number of different criteria, to help them select a few areas in which they could begin new collaborative efforts.

Congratulations to the entire NASA organization on such a monumental achievement!

 

Liz Nilsen