Pascal Lee, co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, and the Principal Investigator of the Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center, spends each day thinking about how to get humankind to Mars.
This ambitious goal has some obvious challenges. “Mars is a God-forsaken place,” confirms Lee.
Then why go to Mars? "The journey is about looking for life and getting ourselves to do impossible things," says Lee. "Going to Mars is a fantastic way to advance so many things that are important to us."
Leading your team, company or industry into unchartered territory can similarly reward you with technological innovation, resource alignment and a motivated population. In the past, companies that have broken new ground have created new products with which they will always be associated. Frigidaire became the Fridge. Any web search is ‘Googling’ even if you are using Bing. Salesforce.com is associated with CRM. Claiming a leadership position will put you far ahead of the competition, yet 67% of CIOs don't know where to start when it comes to innovation.
We interviewed Pascal Lee to learn more about his views on innovation. His focused pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal holds five real-world lessons in how to make a seemingly impossible vision come to life to move your company and industry forward.
Instead of limiting your thinking by conceiving of a business that can be bought at an embryonic stage by a giant like Google, think about how your new business could supplant today's giants. Thinking bigger offers you not only the potential to differentiate your business, but the opportunity to change history. In many cases, a bold vision arises from a sense of urgency or crisis. For President Kennedy, it was the threat of USSR space supremacy that led to the moon launch. For Lee, it is the need to inspire a new generation of students to pursue cutting edge science and math. Create your own Apollo moment and craft a bold vision.
Next, do deep analysis to understand the problems and challenges to achieving your vision. When President Kennedy boldly stated that the United States would send a man to the moon in the 1960’s, we only had 15 minutes of manned spaceflight recorded. How did he make such a bold claim on so little experience? His team of trusted advisors had conducted deep analysis of the facts and told him that it was possible. It was only with a mastery of the facts that Kennedy was able to take a calculated risk and communicate his vision to the world. Do the analysis to understand your market, how people will use your product, how your product will work, and the barriers. In the absence of this homework, your concept is only half-baked.
With the confidence in your vision and the facts to back it up, the next step is to talk about your vision in a way that shows that you understand the barriers and its not a pipe dream. “You need to really believe in it and never let go of your focus,” says Pascal Lee. “You have to believe in the purpose and success of what you are undertaking, and despite the odds and the naysayers, stay the course.” With all bold pursuits, it can seem impossible at the start. Most good ideas fail because a lack of commitment and carrying through despite barriers. "Believing without commitment just puts the concept up for grabs to others who have the grit to pursue it," says Lee.
Now that you have a clear path and understanding of the needs to achieve your vision, you need to muster the resources to make it happen. In many cases, you will not be in control of these resources and you need to bring people with competing agendas into alignment. One way forward is to show people that your idea is in their interest and how they can benefit from it. For Lee, it works to explain the economic benefit of a Mars pursuit, and the innovation it will spark in all fields. In the past, great pursuits that have required huge investments have required a competitive context. Give your vision a sense of urgency and a foundation in the strategic interest of your team, company, or nation.
Often, where a project may have received support in the past is not where you will find support in the future. In the case of Lee’s space exploration, some of the most promising investment potential is not coming from the government, but from the private sector. The path to Mars exploration may be a partnership with the private space industry. The lesson? Be open and creative in how you achieve your goals, and find partners across industries who share your vision.
Any bold move that requires vision, commitment, and resources carries more risk than mere incrementalism. You can't hack your way to Mars-- you need vision, commitment, alignment and shared resources. The journey is not easy, but its where a leader -- and history - are made.
To learn more about Pascal Lee’s Mars project, visit www.pascallee.net or http://marsinstitute.info. Follow the #STEAMForwardMars hashtag on Twitter to support elementary school education in readiness for Mars exploration.
Pascal Lee is chairman of the Mars Institute, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute, and the director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA. He is the veteran of over 30 polar expeditions to Mars-like places in the Arctic and Antarctica, and a leading expert in the planning of human missions to Mars. He is the author of MISSION: MARS, a children's book to get kids ready for Mars, published by Scholastic. You can follow him at @pascalleetweets.
Image credit: Haughton-Mars Project/P. Lee
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