Click for joy!

Focus the Struggle

change leadership management Jan 29, 2018
Written by Ed Cook
On February 14, 1990, the scientist of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) turned Voyager 1 around to face the solar system. The spacecraft was just beyond the orbit of Neptune and on its way toward interstellar space. While out there, Voyager 1 took what came to be known as the "Family Portrait," a series of photographs of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth, and Venus. At the press conference Carl Sagan, at that time a "rock star" scientist because of his popular books and television series, "Cosmos," said,

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings..., every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."

The photo of the Earth became known as the "Pale Blue Dot."
Capturing these photos was heralded as a defining moment in humanity’s struggle to understand the world and itself. But not everyone was so joyful.  

At the time, many of the scientists at JPL were adamant against risking a shot so close to the sun that it might damage Voyager’s camera as well as the use of Voyager’s precious fuel to create photos with no scientific merit. This was a stunt in their minds. More publicity than public science. Carl Sagan had to go over the heads of the scientists at JPL (some had been working on the mission for over 20 years) to the Administrator of NASA, Richard Truly, to force the issue.

But outside of the scientists themselves and those curious enough to read the books and watch the documentaries, no one remembers that struggle. Just the pictures are remembered. Those striking thought-provoking pictures. You can see them here: Family Portrait

Often projects that are considered a huge success in hindsight were a struggle all the way to completion. Recognizing the value of the result and not the strife on the way there is a key for leaders to maintain strength and push out doubt. It is the ability to conduct in the struggle that creates the conditions from which greatness can emerge. Squash all dissent and team will atrophy as their muscles to handle a difficult question are unused. Cultivate the conflict, conduct it, and a high-performing team will emerge.

This happened to me in a large team program. The leaders were "bickering" (or so I labeled it), but as it was happening Roxanne texted me, "This is great! They’re working it out!" That set me back on my heels. That was not my interpretation, but as I reflected, I could understand that she was right. The team was in the struggle, working it out, and in the process getting stronger. Had I squashed the conversation, it would have sent the message that I was concerned primarily about harmony or even worse that I was indicating some opinions are more valuable than others. Instead, the team stayed in this mode of struggle and I kept them focused on their purpose. In the end, we completed the program successfully. It was great, but it was never easy.
I have failed and (re)learned this lesson every year of my career. It is as difficult as it is powerful. Cultivate the conflict and the clarity of purpose (your team’s purpose) will emerge.