Can you manage in a vacuum?

The Titans of Saturn

September 15, 2006

The Cassini-Huygens space mission was a dazzling success. It was the first mission to land a robotic probe ( Cassini ) on Saturn while - even more spectacularly - landing a separate probe ( Huygens ) on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan is the farthest point from Earth where a probe has ever touched down, and being rich in organic compounds it resembles Earth more closely than any other planet. Cassini-Huygens , a joint Nasa/European venture, cost $3.3 billion, making it the most expensive space project to date. The spacecraft took some 17 years to plan and build, then spent almost eight years travelling 2.2 billion miles before achieving its triumphant double bull's-eye.

Both Cassini and Huygens landed when and where they were intended to with incredible precision; both then functioned perfectly, transmitting an unparalleled body of scientific data back to Earth. The Titans of Saturn is not, however, the story of the project. Its authors are neither journalists nor scientists, so the book is neither racily written nor scientifically detailed. Bram Groen and Charles Hampden-Turner are management consultants. They decided to explore this particular space mission in the hope of establishing general management precepts that would be applicable to other, terrestrial, enterprises. In this, they have been only partially successful.

As Groen and Hampden-Turner recognise, the extraordinary achievement that Cassini-Huygens was, in many ways, a close-run thing. Here are just a few of the problems that very nearly scuttled the spacecraft before take-off. For a start, an exceptionally expensive space project that takes a quarter of a century to complete will inevitably be subject to unceasing reappraisal, and Nasa frequently came close to pulling the plug. Second, the project took so long that key people constantly came and went, causing major disruptions. Third, the American and European funding procedures were utterly different from each other and almost impossible to keep in synch - as indeed were many of the American and European operatives. Then there were inevitable managerial clashes (which the authors minimise, I think, wrongly). There were equally inevitable scientific and engineering glitches, one of which just about destroyed the whole project when it was within sight of completion, and was then resolved only by dint of enormous good fortune. Of course, all great adventures need their share of luck, but Cassini-Huygens devoured luck by the plane load.

Disregarding all this luck, however, the authors believe the ways in which the project overcame its difficulties provide wide-ranging lessons for business management. Sometimes they do; more often they do not. For starters, the authors repeatedly point out (the book is far too repetitive) that those working on the project did not do so for big bucks but because they believed in it, almost spiritually. They knew they were working on a project of historic significance, and this was enough to motivate them to work their butts off, despite relatively modest salaries. Good for them. But what can be learnt from this? Non-commercial researchers are not paid lavishly, yet often work hard because they believe in what they are doing. Cassini-Huygens was not special in this regard, nor does it offer general lessons for management. Commercial researchers get paid lots because they are not working on projects of historic significance and have to do what their bosses tell them. There is nothing wrong with researching how to produce an improved hairspray, but it is hard to convince yourself that it is a matter of historic scientific importance.

The authors claim that those who worked on the project did not do so to massage their egos. I do not know how they know this. The ways in which people massage their egos are many and various. Certainly, although there were clashes, the teams generally worked together amicably. Indeed, once the project was up and running, great care was taken to recruit only people who would fit in. But then - to take just one example - orchestral musicians work together amicably. It does not negate the fact that many of them have egos as big the Albert Hall that need to be massaged incessantly.

But the authors take their anti-ego thesis further and argue that the way the Cassini-Huygens folk respected and relied on the expertise of their colleagues proves that co-operation, rather than competition, was at the root of their success. Competition, they therefore postulate, is greatly overhyped as a management motivator. This is twaddle. Competition truly occurs only when people are doing the same things as each other. The Cassini-Huygens scientists and engineers were all working on different aspects of the project - that is why they did not compete. And, incidentally, had some of them been competitively duplicating each other's work, certain glitches would surely have been avoided.

Likewise, the authors make much of the fact that the project succeeded even though there was no single leader in overall control. There were 19 countries involved, and the Americans and Europeans operated almost separately, as did the scientists and the engineers. Once again, the authors claim, co-operation was the name of the game, and this disproves the conventional management wisdom arguing that large organisations require strong leadership.

The lack of a sole leader was undeniably unusual - and risky. That they got away with it was partly another consequence of everyone's deep-seated commitment to the project's success. Afterwards the scientists told Groen and Hampden-Turner, sometimes with tears in their eyes, that working on Cassini-Huygens had been the single most significant event in their lives. Great stuff. But unfortunately not every project can be the single most significant event in your life. Moreover, the lack of an overall leader resulted in the need for a complex committee structure to resolve differences between the different parts of the operation. The authors see this as another triumph of co-operation. Others may see it as time-wasting bureaucracy. Indeed, the text hints that this is what many of the participants thought. It would be surprising if they did not.

The final chapter, "Lessons for Planet Earth", draws together the authors' five principal conclusions. Each conclusion highlights aspects of Cassini-Huygens 's achievement but fails to establish convincingly its lessons for Planet Earth. The essential problem is that Cassini-Huygens was unique. And this uniqueness makes it a bad blueprint for generalised management imperatives.

Few, if any, earthbound enterprises can, or should, obtain 25-year funding without the need for a payback en route; few can be so tightly focused on a single objective for so long; few can be sure there will be no competitor lurking around the corner, ready to do the same thing quicker, better or cheaper. These are pressures from which Cassini-Huygens did not suffer, but almost all enterprises - even those that are state run - do.

Unlike Cassini-Huygens itself, The Titans of Saturn is, at best, a near-miss. Rather than try to emulate, however loosely, the scientists they were writing about, by providing a quasi-scientific management manual replete with universal principles, the authors would have done better to tell the story straight and let readers draw their own conclusions.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Royal Institution.

The Titans of Saturn

Author - Bram Groen and Charles Hampden-Turner
Publisher - Cyan/Marshall Cavendish
Pages - 220
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 904879 41 1

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