If you were paying attention to the news recently, you’d realize that more recent space history was written. SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully completed a food and cargo mission to the International Space Station, and returned a first stage rocket on a drone platform in the Atlantic Ocean. This type of landing was never previously achieved.  If you watched this landing, it was spectacular. But for me, what was even more remarkable was the excitement of the team that completed this mission – they went crazy!  

Even with this backdrop, what’s quite noteworthy to me is the importance of what SpaceX is doing from an organizational standpoint. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, is also the CEO of Tesla Motors and is passionate about space exploration. Musk seems to be inspiring early success with a team of people who have a shared vision and mission that they’re deeply proud about! 

But let’s step back and take a more distant view of NASA and SpaceX and begin to discern what might be making this partnership special — and how it can help us achieve greater safety success.  

An unrestrained past

First, I have to say that I love NASA. I got my start in safety through NASA’s Fire and Industrial Branch in the early Space Shuttle Era. However, the NASA-SpaceX collaboration intrigues me and helps to highlight the importance of several critical organizational issues. And what I have to say below must be prefaced by the fact that I don’t know a great deal about SpaceX or NASA’s current organizational makeup. I do know that SpaceX and NASA are partners much like past and current aerospace giants; however, the SpaceX alignment may be a bit different. For one – it helps to have a fresh vision, an unrestrained past, and a clean slate from which to launch and pursue one’s vision.

With SpaceX, the founder seemingly has an unrestricted passion for space and a grand vision not bound by past circumstances, history, or from a scientific background tied exclusively to space. NASA and its leaders may be bound by their early past and their leaders’ imaginations. For me, nothing trumps vision! Please read my November 2014 thoughts on Vision – What’s More Important? www.davidsarkus.com

SpaceX is lean. Both NASA and SpaceX rely heavily on contractors to help build their rockets, supply components, and possibly to launch and return their space vehicles. However, NASA operates with nearly three times as many employees and likely with employees who have been with the agency for a much longer period of time. To me, that may bring about complacency, comfort, and a lack of urgency.

SpaceX is quick. Quickness within organizations relies on leaders who allow others to operate with a large degree of autonomy and ambiguity. This also requires that leaders become comfortable giving away some of their power and decision-making capabilities. It also requires that leaders and followers develop open communications, transparency, and trust that builds into bigger decisions being made within lower levels of the organization.

Hunger and thirst

SpaceX is hungry. Being hungry and thirsty for success requires a certain inexperience, naivety, and clarity of purpose that can’t always be found within those who have greater experience and history within one particular kind of organization or industry. I believe that’s what you might find in much of NASA and its longer-term partnerships – certainly in various organizational pockets.

Delivering the goods

You may argue that SpaceX is breaking barriers and moving through new territory for a variety of other reasons but I’m certain that I’m addressing at least some of the causes for its early success. I also know of events related to exploded rockets failing at launch and other concerns that may not have made it to the press.

No doubt, SpaceX will have to work through a broad variety of government work orders and protocol in order to keep moving forward, but commercial space travel will quickly become a brave new reality. Whatever is going on inside of SpaceX may evolve into a model for organizational excellence that brings complex product delivery to the market, quicker, cheaper, better, and safer too.

Supporting the mission

As safety professionals, I believe we need to embrace a number of thoughts related to our current space era and keep an eye on SpaceX, NASA, and other organizations involved in this new era of space travel.

For one, we need to help people become more autonomous through increasingly better learning experiences and by helping to develop better safety leaders and coaches throughout our workforce.

We can become leaner and hungrier with regard to how we better support and serve our newer and younger people as leaders from within their own groups.

And finally, and most importantly, we need to inspire others, especially our formal leaders, to see and grasp a vision for safety excellence that supports our overall mission for sustained success.

Vision is truly the launching pad for sustainable excellence and breakthrough achievements. What’s your personal vision for safety and how are you sharing it?