Pasadena, CA--If you're looking for some fresh insights on how to manage engineering teams in this era of "faster, better, cheaper" projects, take a look at a new book, High Velocity Leadership (Harper Business Books: New York) by Brian Muirhead of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
Brian knows a thing or two about how to do high-stakes, tight-budget missions in a pressure-cooker environment. The 1998 Design News Engineer of the Year managed the flight system design for the Mars Pathfinder, which landed successfully on the Red Planet in July 1997. The craft collected scientific data and sent back the first color images of Mars, and it deployed a rover that sampled Martian soil and rocks. With the intense, sharply focused Muirhead as its leader, the Pathfinder team accomplished this seemingly impossible mission in a three-year time span and within a $171 million budget--a clear departure from NASA's tradition of lengthy, multi-billion-dollar projects.
Among the management practices that Muirhead feels were most crucial to the mission's success was the ability of Pathfinder's leaders to provide hands-on, technical supervision. "A lot of engineers tend to feel that when they join the management ranks, they don't have to be technical anymore," notes Muirhead, "but that attitude is detrimental in these faster, better, cheaper projects."
On Pathfinder, for example, Muirhead himself took on the task of managing the spacecraft's mass--a chore that required him to interface with engineers working on the design of virtually every system and subsystem. Not only did his personal involvement keep the hardware within prescribed weight limits, but he was better able to understand evolving engineering changes and explain them to the team.
Brian also insisted that his team maintain the project's momentum. He threw out old procedures that bogged down the mission and encouraged faster decision-making. "You don't have to be right all the time," says Muirhead. "It's better to take action and take risks--even if you end up being wrong. You can learn from your mistakes, then move quickly in another direction."
On Pathfinder, the list of risk-taking firsts included the use of a commercial computer based on the IBM RS6000 work-station and the deployment of a giant airbag to cushion the spacecraft's landing on Mars.
Among other Pathfinder strategies that Muirhead recommends in his book for managing high-priority projects:
Set goals that make you stretch.
Muirhead will need to harness all these management principles--and then some--on his new mission, called Deep Space Four. Its objective: Land on a comet, collect samples, launch from the comet surface, link up with an orbiter, and finally return to earth. Launch target: 2003.