Man reached the moon nearly 50 years ago but often struggles to deliver IT projects today – Why?

It is nearly  50 years since man worked with technology to achieve greatness unsurpassed today.

A team of as many as 400,000 people, with an expenditure of  $355m ($1.67bn in today’s money), working with 20,000 companies and universities sent 3 men 385,000km to the moon and brought them back safely over an 8 day period.

That the computer technology used was less powerful than that available in devices we can now carry in our pockets like phones, ipods and usb sticks makes it even more remarkable.

So nearly 50 years on, I reflect on that achievement and think about its enormity.  The scale of the program was huge. However the technology resources were very limited compared to what we have today. There were no advanced IT infrastructures, no email systems, no web or google, no Microsoft Project, no ERP solutions, no business warehouse and executive dashboards for reporting, no shared drives and no powerpoint.  Strangely enough they didn’t even have excel!  How on earth did they manage?

This program did deliver on time. It did achieve its stated objectives. Yet many large scale IT projects that people have worked on since have struggled to deliver.  If you believe many analysts they report as many as 68% of IT projects fail. Given that these IT projects are typically far less complex, with much more available knowledge, skills, experience and technology,  this may seem a bit odd.
Some may argue that many of IT projects don’t have the same budget or resources as the lunar mission Whilst this is true I feel that to accept that as the only reasons would be an oversimplification.
So why was the lunar mission so successful from a program delivery perspective?

1) Executive Sponsorship

As soon as President John F Kennedy delivered his special message to congress on May 25 1961 outlining his plans for a lunar mission, the program was structured for success. His words were powerful and uplifting and yet simple to understand. He expressed executive commitment when he said :-
“Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.  I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfilment.”
Here, he outlined to congress what roadblocks are required to be removed to deliver a successful mission. He also committed his personal support as the commander in chief.  He made this one of the countries top 3 priorities.  He personally stood up and gave his support from the outset. He didn’t delegate this to a junior executive.  This was very symbolic indeed. How many large projects start without the necessary leadership support or allocated priority and actually succeed? How many project team members ask what the view of the boss is about the project they are working on? In this mission there was never any doubt.

2) Complete Agreement on Scope and Goals

During the same speech, President Kennedy defined the scope of the program, the timeline and goals. There could be no debate on what success looked like when he said,

” First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”

Clear and unambiguous in terms of timeline,  scope, vision and goal. 8 years later when the goal was achieved it remained the same as the goal that was originally stated. Nobody decided after 5 years that the Moon wasn’t such a good idea any more so lets go to Venus!

Unfortunately when it came to a CRM deployment I heard of recently, an executive decision was taken to switch from SAP to two weeks before deployment. Not sure that team would have made it to the Moon or Venus. Suspect they would have been left in Houston!

3) Commitment of your Best Resources to the Project

In a subsequent speech to Rice University in Houston, Texas 1962 President Kennedy then outlined the size of the challenge and indicated that this program would challenge the best people that were available,

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills”

In large IT programmes, there are often difficulties in securing the best business resources to support requirements gathering, testing and deployment. Often external resources are called in to fill the gaps.Successful projects deploy external resources to augment the best of the client resources not substitute them.

When faced with the problem of allocating resources vs business priorities to support testing effort, I once asked my CEO for support in securing a key sales resource. I was told that he couldn’t possibly be spared for 5 days from his sales job. So how I asked “could he ever be allowed to take a weeks vacation”. Needless to say, the resource was allocated and the sales guy still made his quarterly commits.

4) Teamwork underpinned by Individual Responsibility

Watching a documentary on the mission recently I was struck by Tim Collins, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, relating the story of the program. Collins outlined the exceptional talent of the  men who  were hand  picked to be part of the NASA program. Clearly there was an tremendous bond between them built out of shared experience and training. It was no great surprise that they developed into an exceptional team from working together for many years. That is not always the case in program teams pulled together to deliver large implementations as many people begin working together for the first time. After the first initial implementation it is generally easier to deliver the next one.

Additionally, I was also impressed that each astronaut was also involved in the design of the spaceship. The design was split up into 13 different sections. Each astronaut had his own area to work on. Despite having access to many thousands of people, it was clearly important that the people who would be key decision makers would actually live with the consequences of their decisions. After all, there were less than 20 people who would end up in danger if  this went wrong whilst the other 400,000 were watching.  How many projects fail because the people that are involved in the development of the solution are not actually involved in the implementation and support?

5) Risk Mitigation and  Contingency Planning

When James A Lovell , the commander of the Apollo 13 mission calmly said to  the ground control team, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” he confirmed the serious flaw in the risk analysis that had been done prior to take off. That the team managed to return to earth safely against all odds is a remarkable achievement in itself. The men were lauded as heroes and rightly so. Often it is the case that those that complete the most unbelievable diving catches are those that are held in the highest esteem. We should also recognise the unsung heroes who averted the danger in the first place by good risk analysis and contingency planning.

Whilst it is impossible to foresee all eventualities prior to “go live”, those that do not do thorough risk analysis and contingency planning will typically be much less successfully in the long run. For example not only did Apollo 11 had a backup crew as you would expect, it also had three  further missions planned before the 1970 deadline set in 1962 should the Apollo 11 mission fail.

There was a speech written by William Safire for President Nixon to deliver on Television on July 18th 1969 and available today in The National Archives in Washington DC entitled “In Event of Moon Disaster” to be delivered if the Apollo 11 astronauts became stranded on the moon.  Its contents are truly moving.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

Additionally, there was instruction that following the address that radio communication was to be cut off with the moon. The astronauts were to be left alone to die. A clergyman was to  proclaim that their souls should be delivered from “the deepest of the deep” as is common in a burial at sea.

Thankfully, none of this was required. This excellent prose remained unsaid. However, it shows that there was a plan for failure, there was a contingency plan in place. Project managers rarely spend more than a nano-second considering the possibility of  their project being unsuccessful. People always refer to plan B but nobody ever thinks about documenting and sharing this plan. Why wouldn’t they, given the chances of success in a larger program are not better than 80% !  Often fear dictates that nobody can mention the unthinkable F word or they are seen as being overlay pessimistic. In this business, they should be considered realists who actually understand what it takes to succeed.

6) A Roadmap , A Plan and A Prototype

Apollo 11 was the culmination of many years of development and innovation. Equally important were the earlier missions designed to build the required expertise and test the key components.  The Command and Lunar Modules were tested during Apollos 7 and 9 whilst orbiting the earth. Apollos 8 and 10 tested  various elements whilst orbiting the moon.

Apollos 7 and 9 were Earth orbiting missions to test the Command and Lunar Modules. Apollos 8 tested various components while orbiting the Moon, and took photographs of the lunar surface.

Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal.  It demonstrated the  performance of the Command and Lunar Modules in lunar gravitation field and the ability of to perform lunar navigation whilst docked and undocked.  All Apollo 10 mission objectives were achieved. Without it, there would have been no Apollo 11.

So often people choose to go for the “big bang implementation” without having built any confidence in the constituent parts and they wonder why they find it so hard to succeed. Another interesting point to note here is that although the mission within the roadmap had overlapping timelines, they had separate teams assigned to them. How many projects  have failed because the key developers cannot manage to multiplex between multiple releases with conflicting priorities? It all becomes just too hard to deliver.

7) Recognition of  Success

In the end the glory was bestowed on Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Tim Collins as the people most recognised for their acheivement. Spare a thought for  Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and  William A. Anders who were the first to enter lunar orbit as part of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. Additionally,  Thomas Stafford, Eugene Cernan and John Young the crew of Apollo 10 also completed a lunar manned orbit on May 26 1969 and got within 50000 feet of the moon’s surface. They deserve credit and admiration for venturing into the unknown and risking their lives whilst preparing the Apollo 11 team for success.

Who actually remembers all of them now?

I guess it doesn’t really matter. However, how often is it in large scale implementations where the chosen few get all the glory?  How many of the key players are overlooked when the plaudits are getting handed out, although their team mates know who they are? Neil Armstrong was always full-some in his praise of the other crews and the others involved in the program whilst downplaying his own part for this very reason. He was the focus of the world’s adoration when there were thousands of heroes involved.

All the team involved in the Apollo mission were given  medals made from the melted bolts of the mission’s lunar landing craft. This didn’t cost much I am sure. Can you imaging how much  it mean’t to the people that received them?

I always believe that people react very positively to challenge and adversity. They like to be tested and stretched. Large projects provide those challenges in spades.  Incentivising the key players helps to secure that success as well. Rewarding and recognising the team makes them more likely to be motivated to go that extra mile the next time as well.

Too often, the project team members can feel that they have been taken for granted. It doesn’t take much to change that perception. So why do so many executives in leadership positions not take the time to make it happen?

8 ) Dealing with Setbacks

Every project has unforeseen setbacks. None more so than the Apollo mission.

On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck the Apollo program and three astronauts, Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White  and Roger B. Chaffee  died when a fire occurred in command module during a launch pad test. A seven-member board, conducted an investigation to pinpoint the cause of the fire. The final report completed in April 1967 was subsequently submitted to the NASA Administration. The report made specific recommendations that led to major design changes, changes to the manufacturing and  testing processes, new procedures  and improved quality control. The recommendations were implemented and the safety of the future mission was enhanced significantly.

So although the goals of the program did not change, fundamental changes were made. The schedule was changed and the deliverables were adjusted. This is reality in every program. Mature organisations recognise it, deal with it and are still successful. Others tend to become deflected, disillusioned and lose control.  How many have to deal with the loss of life? Yet inability to manage unforeseen circumstances and react quickly to resolve in a measured way are a primary cause of project failure.

9) Slicing up the Elephant into Bite Size Chunks

When things get too complicated they fail. Most people cannot manage to focus on  more than a couple of things at a time.  People ask “how is the program going?”. This is a pretty meaningless question. However the answer is usually, “pretty good” or “its a bit of a struggle” depending on who you speak to.  When it comes to large programs,  you have to review the individual components to get a sense of perspective on progress. Some will be going really well, some will be going really badly and others will be relatively on track. Structuring the program correctly to manage each critical component individually is a key skill that is often overlooked. Those that structure for success generally achieve success.

10) Resource Flexibility

Teams are often budgeted and positioned at the start of the program. The same thing happened with the Apollo program. The difference in the Apollo program from most large implementations was the flexibility in the use of resource. As requirements and priorities changed, the teams were realigned. As issues were found, resources were reallocated.  Project managers did not throw their hands up in horror about their inability to deliver with less people. They accepted that decisions had to be made to change focus as required. The accepted that if they needed help, they would have resources allocated back to their team with interest. In many large scale implementations, Program Managers keep and protect their resources throughout the timeline even when not working to full capacity just in case. Strong leadership is required to allay fears and re-balance resources when necessary. How many companies manage to ever do that well?


The most remarkable thing about Apollo 11 was its nearly perfect execution, from take off to landing despite the numerous unknowns, limited technology and incredible complexity.  Its outstanding success relied on the critical events succeeding through hard work, determination, excellent management, outstanding technology, innovation and flawless execution.

By adhering to the 10 key elements that were fundamental ingredients in the program management recipe 40 years ago, large scale programs  today  adopting these principles can significantly improve chances of success today.  It may be unrealistic to expect a team of 400000 to be allocated to support you but at least we have got Excel and Powerpoint instead!

This recipe only addresses half the story. The lunar mission can help us understand the best way to build and implement a technology solution. However it doesn’t really help us when managing the additional complexity of change management, business readiness and transfer to operations. Those issues will need to wait for another day.

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