Spacing Out on Risk, Innovation and Desired Outcomes, Part 1

A risk-averse mindset would never have landed us on the Moon during the heady days that followed John F. Kennedy’s directive in 1962 for the U.S. to “go to the Moon” by the end of that decade.

I love to use story of how powerful Kennedy’s words were when I teach students and executives about Vested Outsourcing. The Apollo program had one of the clearest (and most difficult) Desired Outcomes of all time: be the first to land a human on the Moon in less than 10 years.

I often refer to the importance of having clearly defined Desired Outcomes as crucial for any Vested relationship. In fact, it is the third of the five Vested Rules.

Let’s take a quick look at the definition of Desired Outcomes (from The Vested Outsourcing Manual): A description of results a company strongly wants to achieve. Typically Desired Outcomes include system-wide, high-level results for items such as lowered cost structures, higher service levels, higher market share, fasted speed to market, reduced cycle time, more loyal customers, etc.

Now back to JFK, the moon, Desired Outcomes and risk. One of the things that we see in highly successful Vested relationships is not only a rallying around clearly defined Desired Outcomes, but also a common theme in that many times the parties do not know exactly how they will achieve success.

This was also true with JFK’s Desired Outcome to put a man on the moon. Everyone had to focus and collaborate together on what they had to do and then innovate like crazy to get there. Their roadmap was definitely not a straight line—there was a lot of trial and error on the way. And there were plenty of failures before ultimate success—and history—was achieved. The Apollo lunar landing program was a great example of the Vested model’s approach to using incentives to reach Desired Outcomes.

Fifty years after JFK’s rallying cry, I think his lessons as they relate to the importance of clearly defined Desired Outcomes are a seminal and inspirational analogy for companies that are seeking the ever-so-elusive innovation they crave.

I am excited to see those lessons are not lost at NASA. Robert Braun is one individual there that is looking back to help NASA move forward. Braun’s career at NASA began in 1987. Starting in 2003 he led a research and education program at Georgia Tech that focused on designing flight systems and technologies for planetary exploration. He’s been NASA’s Chief Technologist since 2010 and innovation is a hot topic he explored in a recent interview in NASA’s ask magazine.

In the interview Braun said, “I think the amount of innovation in an organization is largely a function of how that organization values innovation. Innovators are going to come out of the woodwork when they’re incentivized to do so.”

You can even, as Braun says, “celebrate failure” when you go after a large goal, make progress and do the right things, but fall short. The next time you probably won’t fall short. You’ll have gained valuable knowledge; including the realization that avoiding risk at all costs won’t ever get you to the Moon.

Or in the stirring words of JFK: “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Kennedy, perhaps more than most great leaders had a great idea of the risks involved in life, politics and achieving goals; I’ll further elaborate on Braun’s ideas on risk next time.

Image: Moon by penguinbush via Flickr

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