If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.

The Value of Values

Originally posted December 2013

My daughter’s primary school had its OFSTED inspection a few months ago and came out of it very well. What was particularly heartening from my perspective was not only that it was hitting good academic standards but that it achieved “outstanding” comments for issues such as pupil behaviour, cooperation and respect for others. There’s nothing particularly special about the school – it’s in what could be described as “working class” district of Liverpool and draws a significant number of pupils from socially deprived inner city areas.

But what is interesting, reading the OFSTED report, is the way it’s run.

  • Its whole ethos is based on a set of values (faith based ones in this particular case, but the important point is that it has values)
  • The school is led by a headteacher who ensures that targets and objectives are based in the context of those values
  • Teachers work within the values, set stretching but achievable targets and lead by example
  • Consequently pupils enjoy school, are interested in what’s going on and promote the culture themselves
  • And finally, as a relatively small school, communication is easier and there is less chance of individuals being “missed” or isolated.

So let’s try a bit of substitution. Change the words headteacher, teachers and pupils to Managing Director (or business owner), managers and employees. Sounds to me that it’s a successful recipe for building a sustainable and profitable business, with engaged and motivated employees. And it seems that smaller businesses may be more able to do this than larger ones – something which is also the subject of my contribution to the recent book of HR blogs “Humane, Resourced”.

If you want your business to be successful, then the question isn’t “why should we bother with values” – it’s “why don’t we have – and act on them – already?”


Edit: You might also enjoy this blog from HR blogger Helen Tracey on the same theme:

Are Values Valuable?