Strategic Implementation from a Master: NASA

There appears to be a wide chasm between those who have a strategic plan and those who have successfully implemented strategy. Unfortunately, the former doesn’t appear to beget the latter. The issue isn’t whether we value having a plan or if we understand how to do it–it is whether we can get it done.

As I have spoken to executives across the country, most claim their biggest challenge is strategic implementation. While indeed that is the symptom, it is not the root cause. The reason most organizations struggle with implementation is the quality of the work that is done in the planning phase. By quality, I mean the amount of focus, clarity, alignment and accountability that is built into the plan.

NASA has long been admired for their ability to live strategy. Who can forget the galvanizing statement by John F Kennedy in 1961, “Before the end of the decade we will put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth”. And NASA made it happen. That focused statement was clear and measurable. It allowed scientists and engineers in the program to know what was expected of them and it touched the hearts and minds of Americans enabling full support for the program.

What you may not remember is that the first efforts of the program weren’t aimed to put a man on the moon; they were aimed at learning what it took to put a man on the moon….and return him safely to earth. Here are a few things we can learn from the Apollo program.

1) The Command Center takes the lead. Good strategies and the process that creates them are led from the top. Having a plan isn’t as important as having a plan that is focused, clear, aligned and accountable. To discover more on those four criteria of a great strategic plan, click here.

2) Strategy is mapped in mission modules. You don’t get to the end game without figuring out the most effective way to do it. A high level strategy must be broken down into actionable steps that are sequenced over time. Apollo had 2 missions before they launched the first shuttle to the moon and Astronaut Armstong stepped on the moon’s surface. According to Wikipedia, six of the missions (Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) achieved goal of walking on the moon. Apollos 7 and 9 were Earth orbiting missions to test the Command and Lunar Modules, and did not return lunar data. Apollos 8 and 10 tested various components while orbiting the Moon, and returned photography of the lunar surface. Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon due to a malfunction, but also returned photographs. The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments. . Creating a critical path is essential to end game success. To relive the goose bumps from that first step on the moon, click here.

3) Stay focused on the end game. Perhaps it is lack of patience but we too often change our plans midstream. We get impatient or attracted to something that looks better…or more likely, easier. What if NASA had stopped before figuring out how to return a man safely to earth? Would the outcome have been as celebrated? Would the space program been able to go on and build on their successes in the same way? I think not. Don’t pull out before you cross the finish line. Staying power is what makes good organizations great.

4) Mobilize the masses. The speech Kennedy gave was electrifying. It was successful in engaging people. NASA’s critical path of learning, of launching missions in the public eye, and the consistent drum beat toward the goal, kept people engaged and funds flowing into the program for many years. It is not the plan that works–it is the people who make the plan work– and they must be fully involved!


This link takes you to a page out of the strategic play book of the Goddard Space Flight Center. This one page (page 2) demonstrates good strategy–it is focused, provides clarity, shows the alignment of all work under the same banner and suggests accountability by establishing links to goals.

I hope you are as inspired by this work as I am! As always, would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Please share your comments.

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