For Christmas this year I read for fun The Martian by Andy Weir. As I read the book, it really drew me in. I started to imagine the idea of really being stranded, what sets apart those that survive, even thrive and go onto tell the tale another day. The book was a fun read, made me think of the classic movies like Robinson Crusoe on Marsor the more recent Mars moves.
What was fun about this read was being in the head of the stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. Part biologist farmer, part mechanical engineer his view of life alone on the red planet was inspiring. As I came to the end of the book I realized there were a few business mindset lessons that could apply.
How You Look At The Situation – When Watney becomes stranded and realizes no one even knows he is alive he still moves forward thinking of how he will survive. Yes he has moments of self pity and doubt, but he never gives up. Instead he fines the challenge in doing, of planning, of thinking all towards the idea of living, of getting off Mars. Mark stays positive – makes fun of things and himself.
We have all been in difficult business meetings, projects, careers and the difference between success and failure all starts with the attitude you bring to the event/challenge. Anyone in a problem can see the negative, the immediate pain and help add fuel to the fire(misery loves company). It is a leader, an individual with true grit to see these moments as a puzzle to solve.
Years ago when I was in a situation with over 300 sales and marketing people in my team that I faced an immediate shut down of a public company. In the middle of this storm I lived by a few simple rules;
1. Stay calm, be engaged, stay in front of the issue;
2. Remember the people and treat them fairly and openly – no running and hiding;
3. Don’t wait – take action immediately no time to wait;
4. Fine the humor where and when you can.
As we were in the throws of this bad situation (lay offs, mad clients, legal stuff) I found a card taped to my door. The cover showed a ship in a storm, tossed by the seas. It said “anyone can sail a ship in sunshine and calm waters, a true leader comes forward in the roughest of times… thanks for staying on deck and showing us a way forward…” 20 years later I still think of those words.
Every time I read another “true survival” story or book time and time again they say “the difference is how you look at the situation and you stay positive and you want to survive” the same can be said about business calamities too!
Things Can Be Used For More Than What They Were Intended – In the book Mark the stranded astronaut has challenges of food, water, air, energy and so on. He realizes he will need to travel farther than ever planned or done before on Mars (thousands of miles). He sets about to retro fit the Mars buggies he has access to, to both long distance and as a lifeboat in a way. He does so by understanding what he has and how he can change its original purpose to the more current need and focus. Even the potatoes brought on the journey originally for a simple test to see if they will sprout on Mars, becomes part of a bigger plan to convert the habitat he is surviving in to a potato farm (even his bodily waste is being applied to the project).
Many times we look past things that have worked or are situated for one project and do not think “can I use this again, but in a different way?” Over the years when dealing with technical products and systems development I have found that there is almost a built in desire to build new vs reworking old. When developing the first prepaid cards on the planet there was a combined team from Boatmen’s Bank, MasterCard and Maritz working on all the necessary systems.
As we listed out and then process mapped the different stages of the transaction processing for a prepaid transaction in real time at the Point of Sale (POS), having the transaction take place in less than 13 seconds, we had a few simple development guidelines: 1. We did not want to change the POS experience for both the cardholder or the checkout clerk (unlike smart cards, I actually called it a neanderthal smart card) 2. We wanted to get the product operational as soon as we could, meaning tapping into or using existing systems that may have been built for one thing, now using it in the prepaid, stored-value transaction was a good idea. We ended up tapping into the MasterCard bank to bank debit platform, tied with a savings account system at the bank and a checking account statement function all gatewaying through a new card processing system (that we built a filter in for all our transactions.) In the end we were able to launch a whole new form of global payment in less than 8 months vs a 3 to 5 year window.
Understanding what you have available, giving you team the freedom to explore and change (or as we would say “bolt on, bolt off” ) and the willingness to try new ways with old/ existing systems lead to success.
Any And All Communications – In the book the stranded astronaut Mark realizes that no one knows he is still alive, they all believe he is dead on Mars. While he knows he has to find a way to communicate with NASA on Earth he sets his priorities on surviving first. Once he accomplish this he starts a creative process of figuring out how to get word back to Earth he is alive, and he hopes their help. All his obvious communications are gone or not functioning. Again he pulls from his creative thinking and starts a plan. At about the same time NASA, while utilizing satellite images from Mars, figures out Watney is alive – we (the reader and NASA) both grasp what he is doing.
He is trying to get to one of the early Mars rovers and brings it back to his base to connect with NASA. Once he has it back at base he is able to do base level communications and realizes that he can send morse code via rocks and the satellites even if the Rover link up doesn’t last. He realizes that communications to Earth comforts him and makes him feel like he is not alone, yes it can be frustrating to have NASA in the mix but communications is key to him getting off the planet.
In business this has happen to me. I felt alone and without communications to others on my team, in my industry or even my family. The fact was it was not a true reality. There was more avlaible to me and people to reach out to as long as I worked at communicating more often and in different ways. While working at Centennial we were launching and developing a wide variety of tools to help people better sell, market and manage accounts. At the start I would send out an email every month to the whole company listing all the new tools, press clippings/ links etc. In time I came to realize that while I felt good after I clicked the “send” button the fact was very few people were reading my email. At first I was frustrated. Then I thought, everybody listens, receives and adsorbs communications in different ways.
So we build a “brand store” on the .com website that had all our outward focused brand standards along with an area with white papers, another with links to articles, etc. Next we created an orange binder that we sent to every office with samples of all the communications tools. Plus we did webnairs, information in the company newsletter, presented at company leadership and training meetings, went to regional team meetings and yes still did the emails. At trade shows too we communicated to clients, to future possible clients AND to our team as well. Even then I think I was reaching only 30% of the team. In time, with consistent and collaborative efforts over time the cumulative effort lead to others also helping get the word out. The key point was, we never stopped looking or trying to communicate in new and different ways.
The book, The Martian by Andy Weir was a fun read, at the same time it remind me that when I felt the most stranded in business, at a point of no return I still had life in me. The chance to focus and move forward was in my hands. By staying positive, looking at things creatively and communicating more not less I was able to create new possibilities.