Mars mission shows path to "faster, better, cheaper"

ksaldarini@govexec.com

Most federal executives can relate to the problem of managing underfunded projects on tight deadlines. The Mars Pathfinder mission was just such a project.

The Pathfinder mission had a budget of $171 million and a three-year deadline. By comparison, NASA's Viking mission to Mars in 1976 took six years on an inflation-adjusted budget of well over $3 billion. And the opportunity to launch came only once every 26 months, a deadline dictated by the solar system.

But on July 4, 1997, when the Pathfinder landed on the surface of Mars, the managers of the program showed they were up to the challenge.

In High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to "Faster, Better, Cheaper," Brian K. Muirhead and co-author William L. Simon give readers an insider's look at how this seemingly impossible mission was carried off. As the drama of the daunting task unfolds, business and leadership lessons emerge.

Muirhead, project manager of the Pathfinder mission, explains how his team implemented one of the first major projects carried out under NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's motto: "faster, better, cheaper." In the authors' words, it was "a journey not just to Mars but to the new high-velocity leadership style of tomorrow."

On the technical side, Muirhead was forced by budget constraints to develop new cost-effective technologies rather than turning to expensive solutions. On the management side, the Pathfinder team avoided big disasters by correcting small problems along the way.

In a chapter called "It's the Team, Stupid!," Muirhead writes: "Just as the whole of the Pathfinder project succeeded in part because we were challenged by a difficult, stirring goal, so do individual teams sometimes come alive and 'gel' as a group when faced with some hurdle or hazard so formidable that the prospect makes everyone question their sanity."

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