In “Countdown To Teamwork”, Astronaut Mullane delivers a hard-hitting, substantive teamwork and leadership program that is also wonderfully entertaining. (In places the content is laugh-out-loud funny.) The program centers on the following fundamentals:
Guarding against a “Normalization of Deviance” Normalization of deviance is a long-term phenomenon in which individuals or teams repeatedly accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the “norm”. Usually, the acceptance of the lower standard occurs because the individual/team is under pressure (budget, schedule, etc.) and perceives it will be too difficult to adhere to the expected standard. Their intention may be to revert to the higher standard when this period of pressure passes. However, by “getting away” with the deviation, it is likely they will do the same thing when the same stressful circumstances arise again. Over time, the individual/team fails to see their actions as deviant. Normalization of deviance leads to “predictable surprises” which are invariably disastrous to the team.
Mullane uses the Challenger tragedy to make this point. Under tremendous schedule pressures the NASA team accepted a lower standard of performance on the solid rocket booster O-rings, i.e., they accepted heat damage that was never expected. The team slowly fell into the trap of believing the absence of disaster when the deviance was observed meant the deviance was acceptable. The lower standard became the “norm”. By the dawn of Challenger, the NASA team had gotten away with O-ring damage so many times that the original standard, in which ANY O-ring damage had been defined as intolerable deviance, was marginalized. A “predictable surprise”, i.e., a deadly disaster, resulted.
Responsibility The power of all teams resides in the uniqueness of the team members, in their diversity of life experiences which yields a diversity of insights into team situations. When individuals become “passengers” and don’t put their unique perspectives on the table for the team and leadership to consider, the team will suffer. Mullane uses a personal experience to drive home the dangers of becoming a “passenger”. As a new crewmember in a 2-place fighter jet, he noted a safety situation but assumed the experienced pilot in command knew what he was doing when he elected to continue the mission. Ultimately Mullane and the pilot had to eject from the crashing plane. Having narrowly escaped death because of it, Mullane is intimately familiar with the dangers of team members slipping into a “passenger” mode. “One person with courage forms a majority”, is a quote by former President Andrew Jackson that Mullane will use in this discussion.
Everyone has a sacred responsibility to get their unique perspectives on the table for the leadership to consider; to never assume somebody else is going to fill in for them. Leaders have a sacred responsibility to empower the voices of their people so that no one is allowed to slip into a passenger mode.
Mullane closes this discussion with a real world example of how a medical doctor at NASA (not an engineer or astronaut) had the best solution for an engineering problem associated with the post-Challenger shuttle bailout system. This is an example of how great ideas can exist in the minds of people who are not considered the experts on a particular issue.
Courageous Self-Leadership Most audiences are shocked to learn how ordinary Mullane was. People assume because he is an astronaut now, that in his youth, he was a super-child, destined for great success. That is not the case. Mullane uses slides and video to prove he wasn’t a child genius. He wasn’t a high school sports star. He didn’t date the homecoming queen. He wasn’t popular. Yet he realized a lifetime dream through the practice of self-leadership. Every individual and team has an “edge of a performance envelope”. That edge is much further out than individuals and teams realize and they find it through the practice of self-leadership.
Self-leaders set very lofty goals, accept the unchangeable, make mid-course corrections around obstacles and stay focused on the goal. Mullane develops this philosophy of self-leadership: “Success isn’t a final destination. It’s a continuous life journey of working toward successively higher goals for yourself and your teams.”
Countdown To Teamwork is remarkably inspirational and humorous. The audience will come away from the program with a renewed sense of their potential and the potential of their teams.