27 September 2023

Tomorrowland: What Disney and NASA have in common

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Lisa Earle McLeod describes how two ultra-successful organisations leverage creative tension between two opposite departments to get a better outcome than either could have achieved alone.

Have you seen Tinkerbell fly through the air at Disney?

It’s magical, as she flies through the sky from the top of Cinderella’s castle, it appears effortless.

Of course it’s not.

Tinkerbell’s magical flight is the result of some genius cross-departmental tension.

At Disney, two of their core keys of conduct are safety and show.

Safety and show may be at odds in many organisations, yet Disney leverages the tension between two seemingly opposite departments to create something better than either would alone.

The creative people wanted Tinkerbell to appear effortless and shimmering, yet the safety experts would better ensure no accidents by keeping her on the ground waving a flashlight.

Yet night after night, she flies from the castle in the sky, and she never gets hurt.

It’s because these two critical functions didn’t buy into the false comfort of compromise.

This same cross-departmental tension plays out in an even higher stakes endeavour at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In a recent article my business partner, Elizabeth Lotardo describes how NASA leverages the tension between science and engineering during the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

She writes: “Throughout the mission, the scientists want to know everything, and have as much data as possible.

“The engineers what to keep the spacecraft and the Solar System safe.”

Cassini, an incredibly ambitious mission sending a sophisticated robot to explore the rings and moons of Saturn, started in 1997 and lasted through 2017.

The team at NASA was tasked with crashing the spacecraft into the atmosphere in a way that wouldn’t damage Saturn or any of its moons.

Leader of Cassini Spacecraft Operations, Julie Webster, and Cassini Lead Project Scientist, Linda Spilker brought two high-performing teams together for something bigger than either could have achieved alone.

Ms Lotardo writes: “NASA’s mission statement calls on the Agency to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.

“In the Cassini mission, it wasn’t just about the science. It wasn’t just about the engineering.

“The entire crew knew that a balance of the two was crucial to fulfil the Cassini mission, and ultimately the mission of NASA.”

Every organisation has cross-departmental tension, whether it’s IT vs. Finance or Second Shift vs. Third Shift.

In average organisations, the teams fight it out.

Either each one gives a little and they water down their best thinking, or one side dominates and the other team is marginalised.

The secret to high-performing organisations (like NASA and Disney) is their ability to leverage the expertise of seemingly conflicting goals without compromise.

Ms Lotardo describes how Ms Webster and Ms Spilker at NASA do two things that set them apart.

They commit to a higher share purpose, and they have unwavering mutual respect.

She writes: “When leaders attempt to break down silos without a common purpose and mutual respect, people become defensive.

“Recognising each component and the value they bring to fulfilling the purpose is the foundation for growth.”

Flying through space, whether you do it above Disney or you’re gathering data from Saturn, is a tough challenge.

If you’re facing a tough job in your organisation, ask yourself: Where is our creative tension?

How can we leverage our tension to make us even better?

* Lisa Earle McLeod is best known for creating the popular business concept ‘Noble Purpose’. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose and can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared on Lisa’s blogsite

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