When setting a business mission, a little inspiration from former US President, John F Kennedy, can’t hurt. Try emulating this paraphrased version of his famous 1962 speech at your next team planning session:

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because this goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because this challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

I was reminded of this speech while listening to an interview with renowned psychology author, Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, on the Skeptics Guide To The Universe podcast.

Richard has released a new book about the psychology behind the success of the Apollo Moon program and a couple of the key points resonated deeply with me in my work with businesses.

That alone was enough to plant the seeds of a blog, but then I saw an interesting LinkedIn update by an Adelaide business where a former colleague now works, and I happened to re-listen to a little known, offbeat track by Leonard Cohen called Passing Through, and my writing fate was sealed!

Even when mistakes mean death, it’s crucial to own up to them

One of the central themes in Richard’s exploration of the Apollo program is how the managers knew they needed people who were so committed to the mission that they would own their mistakes rather than hide them.

In the interview, Richard relays the story of three engineers being hauled before the their boss at NASA after something went wrong.

Two of the men tried to blame each other but the third stepped forward and said, I made a mistake. He was kept on and the other two were instantly dismissed.

Richard then reflects on how many psychologists today encourage the keeping of diaries in which we write uplifting things that happen each day, as a way of cultivating gratitude, in contrast to Dale Carnegie’s practice of diarising his “stuff ups” along with ideas for avoiding repeating them.

I’m not advocating the diary of stuff ups because, as Adelaide psychologist, Alexandra Frost, says, while reviewing mistakes and learning from them can be helpful, we need to put distance between us and those thoughts as quickly as possible so we can return to focussing on what we’re capable of in the future.

Alexandra’s focus around performance anxiety is relevant here because her research revealed a strong correlation between anxiety and the inability to let go of mistakes during performance.

And this psychological insight seems to be what is really at work in the NASA Apollo team of the 1960s; make a mistake, own up to it, learn from it, move on.

According to Richard, this healthy culture of embracing failure as a learning opportunity needs to start at the top. And that’s where the challenge is.

We know we need team work but that assumes a trustworthy boss

We’ve all been there. We do the hard yards, put in the extra time to upskill and think deeply, and then the boss swoops in and takes the credit when they’re hobnobbing about town.

Richard Wiseman clearly points out how the mindset of being part of a team was crucial to meeting the goal of putting a man on the Moon before 1970.

He shared the story that just before the Moon landing, the flight director at NASA locked all the doors, closing off the Mission team from everybody else, and told them that they are all in it together and if something goes wrong and we lose our friends (the astronauts) then we all lost them; not one single person should carry that load alone.

He also notes that the NASA engineers he interviewed for the book often said they were surrounded by colleagues who wanted to build something, not be somebody.

And if this mindset is key to developing a team environment, then this challenge is a double whammy in 2019.

Firstly, you need to know you can trust your colleagues and boss to be able to bring all your self to the table at work. Get a whiff of something shady, and it is easy to start leaving a little more at the door.

If you’re an employer reading this, it’s not hard to build trust within your team, and there are plenty of books on the subject. I’d start with the obvious actions like actually paying your employees what you have promised but then by making sure you criticise privately and praise publicly, and then by risking developing your staff into people you’d hate to lose. A lot of research shows people value such support and development more highly than money.

I was heartened to see two posts by different people at Sweat, the world’s largest digital gym and home to a former colleague of mine, Sarah MacDougall, that showed how there are companies taking this positive approach to employee needs and development seriously.

Sweat has a library of business and motivation books that staff can borrow (have I mentioned that Shoot For The Moon – How The Moon Landings Taught Us The 8 Secrets Of Success would be a great inclusion?), and their manager of people and culture, Sara Siami, just got back from a trip to Sydney where she had the privilege to visit some of the biggest global brands offices to observe the focus each company had on the employee experience, going above and beyond to offer lifestyle conveniences to keep employees engaged and balanced.

Certainly, crafting a work/life ecosystem like this so that employees are nourished in many ways, must surely set up the environment for team spirit.

Secondly, the other factor plaguing our chances of rekindling the strong team qualities of the Apollo engineers is we have our smartphones and social media culture in which we are all encouraged to capture and share the “me moments”, the “look at me” moments of perfection.

Now that this has become our collective mental habit, with its incessant demand for more “me story material” all the time, how do we snap into “team mode” when at work? And I mean more than just including colleagues into a “me selfie with extra people”.

Perhaps the answer is above us?

Is your business mission as inspiring as shooting for the Moon?

This is the big takeaway from Richard’s book and research.

If you can develop a mission that is worthwhile and stretches people, and you not only have character but you apply yourself to your endeavour with great integrity, then you will have created the environment that allows and encourages good people to thrive.

Richard recalls how Kennedy set the goal of a Moon landing shortly after America succeeded in getting a rocket into space. He wanted a new challenge, something bigger to aim for.

His advisors proposed a space station, but that was not enough. Then they suggested putting something on the Moon, but that was not enough. Then they put forward the idea of getting a man to the Moon and that was almost enough. It was Kennedy’s extra addition of a deadline of achieving the goal before the decade was over, that really upped the ante.

Closer to home, Christie Anthoney, former director of the Adelaide Fringe was on Peter Goers’ Smart Arts today recalling a story in which she had a moment of new goals being thrust upon her. She explained how she was poised to become director of the festival in 2006 (at that stage it was a biennial festival) when she heard Mike Rann say that if Labor won the election that year he would make it an annual event. He won. So, instead of preparing for a 2008 event, she had to step up, fast, and get 2007 into gear. The phones went mad, she said, the pressure was on, and the rest is history.

Likewise, at NASA in the 1960s, despite presidential advisors saying it couldn’t be done, they found a way to get a man on the Moon.

And before you say “of course NASA could do something like that”, Richard reminds us that it wasn’t done by senior engineers who’d done this kind of thing before, because they were convinced it wasn’t possible. Human history was changed by a team of engineers who’s average age was only 21.

As one of the young engineers recounted to Richard, we were too young to know it couldn’t be done so we just got on with it.

Admittedly, the Apollo team thought they were doing this not just for NASA but for the nation and the world and it might be hard to set a goal like that in your local tearoom or tyre shop.

However, if your mission is not focussed on what you do but on why you do it, on how your work can equip others to thrive in their lives, then you have the making of a business mission worth committing to!

So where does this leave us?

I believe the lessons from the Apollo Moon mission teach us we need to set our sights on something bigger than ourselves, something that will inspire and stretch us. If we do this, we will create an environment where the true spirit of teamwork can be rediscovered, and with that in place we can safely own and learn from mistakes. Team members working for such an organisation will not only improve ourselves but they will most likely improve the world around them as they strive to fulfill their their aspirational mission.

And yes, I believe this can (and should be able to) happen as part of our working life.

If you still remain cynical, exclaiming that life’s to short for this and work’s just work, then I have failed to convince you of the truth that was keenly observed by Leonard Cohen in one of his more obscure songs, Passing Through (excuse the gendered language):

“Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right, even though they know they’re only passing through.”

Yes, we’re all only passing through. Life is short. Tenures at certain jobs are short. But meaning can captivate us in each moment. And I know what mindset I’d prefer to adopt as I pass through!