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Shoot for the Moon: Managing Remote Teams

by Anna Faherty

International and Remote Working author Anna Faherty looks at what we can learn from an early remote working success story: the Apollo Program to put a man on the Moon.

By Anna Faherty

In 1968, Science magazine suggested that the greatest long-term benefit of the Apollo Program wouldn't be technological but managerial, because NASA were providing 'better knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the multitudinous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish great social undertakings'.

The cost and complexity of tackling John F. Kennedy's bold 1961 pledge to put a man on the Moon within a decade certainly required a new approach to project management. So NASA waved goodbye to their authoritarian top-down management approach, where a single project manager allocated resources and tasks to subordinate NASA staff. Instead, they said hello to a more consensual system designed to deliver energy, creativity and effective decision-making.

This 'matrix' approach united NASA's internal research and development with research, development and manufacturing activities contracted out to over 500 companies, universities and other government agencies. These contractors worked with a further 250 subcontractors themselves. The number of 'outside' people involved would startle even the most competent manager of virtual teams today.

Because of the nature of the project, the matrix had to handle constantly changing priorities and working patterns - something NASA's traditional management approach couldn't do. In the new structure, each sub-team (whether they were ultimately controlled by NASA or not) was influenced by each other, and each struggled for a share of the overall project's resources, often competing or disagreeing with each other. This element of 'competition' was viewed by NASA as a good thing, ultimately leading to a more precise and viable programme. It wasn't easy to manage, though, and some disagreements persisted for many years after the project was completed.

Although Neil Armstrong and co are living proof that NASA's approach delivered the goods, the challenges of matrix management mean it has lost some of its sparkle in the years since they plummeted back to Earth. Multiple and blurred reporting lines, confusion over accountability, competing goals and conflict can all lead to employee stress and reduced productivity. Constantly changing work teams also disrupt the working relationships on which they are built, losing knowledge, experience and organisational know-how in the process.

Executive coach Gill Corkindale says executives report "utter frustration" when operating in matrix management systems. In a blog post for Harvard Business Review, Corkindale outlines a number of useful tips for surviving the experience, including

  • getting everyone on board in terms of shared values and behaviours,
  • making sure goals and objectives are aligned both vertically and horizontally,
  • building your communication skills to become a great networker, influencer, coach and facilitator,
  • using your personal network to influence people you have no management responsibility for,
  • empowering teams to prioritise tasks and resolve conflicts at a local level and
  • allowing the structure of the team to evolve over time.

These tips aren't just the secret to surviving matrix management, they're important for any virtual team, using any management approach. So, for rather different reasons, it looks like Science magazine's prediction was right. Fighting to survive NASA's management approach has produced some truly practical advice for anyone coordinating teams working at a distance. And that's most managers today.

You can read more about NASA's management approach in their retrospective analysis of Project Apollo.

If you find yourself lost in a matrix management system, check out Global Integrationís Matrix Monday blog posts, which tackle a key issue every week.

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