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How NASA leveraged a $1 billion blunder

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The early history of NASA is partly a history of making mistakes—expensive ones—that helped develop the knowledge needed to land men on the moon and put rovers on Mars.

For example, in 1992, NASA sent a billion-dollar orbiter called the Mars Observer to Mars and then never heard from it again.

Soon after, some NASA folks put their careers on the line by creating the Mars Pathfinder, which was designed to land on the planet’s surface—much more difficult than orbiting. It was a harder mission, but also a less expensive one and more innovative: At $250 million, the project was a quarter of the Observer’s budget. A new airbag system would allow the lander to bounce and roll to a stop.

Finally, on July 4, 1997, the Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars, driving a record number of hits to NASA’s web site. Public interest went through the roof, and for the first time, the public was engaged with the idea of sending spacecraft and eventually humans to Mars.

But it all started with a $1 billion mistake.

How would your staff respond to the question, “Can you make a mistake around here?” Would they reply, “Yes, you can make a mistake, but you will pay for it”?

“If you pay a substantial price for being wrong, you are rarely going to risk doing anything new and different because novel ideas and practices have a good chance of failing, at least at first,” says Laurence Prusak, co-director of a knowledge research program at Babson College.

“I think this condition is still endemic in most organizations, whatever they say about learning and encouraging innovative thinking. It is one of the strongest constraints I know of to innovation, as well as to learning anything at all from inevitable mistakes—one of the most powerful teachers there is.”

Bottom line:  Use the question, “Can you make a mistake around here?” as a rapid-fire indicator to determine whether your organization is really a learning organization. The answer could open the door to the possibility of learning to do things differently—and better.

— Adapted from “What’s Right About Being Wrong,” Laurence Prusak, and “Interview with Robert Braun,” Don Cohen,

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