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Project & Change Management Lessons from Mercury Messenger

Posted Monday, May 11th, 2015

At about 3:30 p.m. EDT on April 30 2015, NASA’s Messenger Mercury Spacecraft ended its successful mission exactly as predicted – slamming into Mercury’s surface and creating a crater on the planet’s surface.

The mission was a phenomenal success. The spacecraft functioned perfectly. All of the instruments worked exactly as designed. Innovative solutions mitigated the harsh conditions of exploring so close to the sun. The data and information gathered completely satisfied the scientific team and has laid the groundwork for the next mission to Mercury in 2016.

How is it possible for human beings to fly a spacecraft billions of miles, in temperatures hot enough to melt lead while successfully operating scientific instruments AND struggle to form effective project teams which struggle with change initiatives?

The answers way well be in the Messenger Mission to Mercury. Here are the key things every project or change initiative needs:

nasa-messenger-crash-mercury.siA Memorable Vision

The mission name embodied its exploration goals – MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging from the core to the planet’s magnetic field. Everyone on the team knew the vision, what it represented and who was accountable to deliver on his or her part.

Defined Goals

Prior to launching, the team of scientific experts identified six specific questions they wanted answered.  They then agreed on the scientific instruments required to achieve each goal. No ambiguity or scope creep allowed.

Information Sharing

The scientific team shared their respective expertise with rocket designers and together created a lightweight, resilient spacecraft capable of operating in Mercury’s extreme environment. Messenger was designed to last for one year – it lasted for 11 years in extreme temperatures and conditions.

Cost Cutting!

Innovation was still achieved while adhering to a strict budget – Messenger contained mostly off-the-shelf parts and standard data interfaces.

Two-Way Communications

Okay, while this was achieved by downlink and uplink satellite technology, the principle still holds true – the best communications is always two-way.

Implementing an ERP or executing an organizational culture change is not rocket science. The lessons learned from the Messenger Mission to Mercury, however, should inform every project or change moving forward. If any of these elements are missing, your crash landing may come sooner than expected.

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