What SpaceX Can Teach Us About Effective Project Management
- October 23, 2017
- Posted by: Juan van Niekerk
- Category: Project Management
Ever been fascinated by the thought of living on Mars? Imagine taking that fascination to the next level with one epic plan that will change the course of history. Elon Musk, founder and lead designer of SpaceX, took on the challenge of making life multi-planetary. The proof is in the pudding as life on Mars is now not so far away. In terms of effective project management, this happens when specific objectives are achieved through the application of specific skills. As a result SpaceX can be considered one of the greatest examples of effective project management.
By considering what constitutes effective project management, we found there were certain traits inherent in a Project Manager that contributed to the positive outcome of a project. These traits or ‘skills’ are applicable to any Project Manager. By looking at SpaceX from a project management point of view, it illustrates what skills are required for effective project management. In this field it’s important to be up to date with the latest trends, and be aware of what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve been looking for some inspiration to strengthen your approach to project management, then look no further.
Effective Project Management Definition
Before we get into what SpaceX can teach us, let’s quickly clarify what constitutes effective project management, so that we’re all on the same page.
According to PMI, a project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Project management requires applying specific knowledge, skills and tools to specific activities in order to meet project requirements.
Effective Project Management
As project management entails meeting project requirements, whether these requirements are met determines whether a project is successful or not. In most cases, a project is successful when there’s effective project management in action. Effective project management is the planning and organising of resources in order to successfully achieve objectives. A Project Manager who is capable of effective project management, has a specific skill set that he is able to apply to the managing of a project.
As project management requires applying specific knowledge and skills, after extensive research, I found that there are certain skills that are common in Project Managers who manage to successfully complete effective projects. In order to be an effective project manager, there are certain skills you need to have.
Effective Project Management Skills
An effective Project Manager is someone who is fully vested in organisational success- and is able to roll with setbacks. There are however some skills that are important for all Project Managers. These skills allow for effective project management:
- Ability to Negotiate
- Risk Management skills
- Time Management
- Subject Matter Expertise
- Cost Control
- Critical Thinking
In order to understand how these skills have an impact on effective project management, we’re going to consider each individual one. However, we’re going to look at these skills in relation to SpaceX. In order to do so, let’s clarify what is SpaceX.
What is SpaceX?
According to the Telegraph, “SpaceX is a company that aims to reduce the cost of space transportation with the long-term goal of creating a colony on Mars.”
Founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX started off by exploring ways to send a greenhouse to Mars. In order to do this, Musk attempted to elicit cheap rockets, for his “Mars Oasis” project, from NASA. His attempt was unsuccessful, and so he initiated a low-cost purchasing mission in Russia, which also turned out to be unsuccessful. However these failures would not alter his vision of making life multi-planetary. As a result, Musk decided to create his own rockets. Rockets that could significantly lower the cost of space travel.
SpaceX Elon Musk
Elon Musk is the founder, CEO and lead designer at Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), where he oversees the development and manufacturing of advanced rockets and spacecraft for missions to and beyond Earth orbit. In his own words, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” As one of the greatest entrepreneurs today, he is also leading the way with green technology and Tesla. As in the case of Musk, he aims for the stars with his feet on the ground. With his eyes set on Mars, he still envisions a green Earth.
Notable achievements for SpaceX:
- SpaceX’s Falcon 1 became the first privately developed liquid-fuel launch vehicle to orbit the Earth
- SpaceX is the first commercial provider to launch and recover a spacecraft from orbit, attach a commercial spacecraft to the ISS and successfully land an orbital-class rocket booster
An aspect which has significantly impacted the likelihood of colonising Mars, is the design of ‘resuable’ spacecraft. SpaceX has pioneered the development of reusable rockets. The SpaceX landing of a spacecraft, back on earth, is the first of it’s kind. As one of the reasons for its popularity, this ‘reusable’ aspect has largely impacted the cost of space travel. Due to the lowered cost in travel, it has become viable to now not only travel to Mars, but also to travel to other parts of Earth in a much shorter time.
In the future, the rockets will be designed for short distance and long distance travel. In order to gain more revenue for his plan to colonise Mars, Musk and his team will make travel by rocket open to the public. His latest design of reusable spacecraft, the BFR, promises to allow people to travel to any city on earth in under an hour. Therefore his plan is two fold:
- Use rockets to travel to outer-space
- Use rockets for travelling anywhere on earth
Elon Musk is currently paving the way for life on Mars. With his interplanetary transport system, it won’t be long till there is a SpaceX Mars colony. Musk believes that in order for humans to survive, we must become a multi-planet species. One of the biggest challenges to colonising Mars however, was funding. As a result he proposed reusable rockets that will be used to deliver satellites into orbit and to service the International Space Station. Thanks to this agreement with Nasa, he will then be able to carry out his plans for Mars. With their first planned trip in 2022, SpaceX will first carry cargo and then later on crew, to the Red Planet.
How is SpaceX an example of Effective Project Management?
Up until recently, living on Mars has seemed like a distant reality. Those who pioneer such a reality display immense imagination, ambition and dedication. For Project Managers, they are goal driven individuals. SpaceX is the culmination of great minds to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. The risks and demands, methods and successes of those who pursue projects such as SpaceX can inform our own project management principles and provide valuable insights. Therefore as an incredible source of wonder an inspiration, we can look at SpaceX as an example of effective project management.
An essential skill of effective project management, is strong communication skills. Communication is a skill that may not come naturally to all Project Managers, however it is a skill we can all work on. Having effective channels of communication, has numerous benefits for the project. Effective communication starts from day one and continues for the entire life span of the project. It needs to be efficient and effective for it to have an impact on the project. There may be major obstacles to overcome when it comes to communication, such as communication in diverse work groups, however effective communication can mean the difference between project failure and success.
Dolly Singh, former HR head at SpaceX, says about Elon Musk, “The thing that makes Elon Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision.” In terms of SpaceX, communication is crucial. For starters, SpaceX started as a vision. Without Elon Musk having the ability to convey this vision, SpaceX wouldn’t be what it is today.
Great leadership is an essential skill to being a great Project Manager. Effective project management is only possible through a leader who supports the team and the client. The key is to make sure you’re leading as well as managing. In fact in many cases, leadership is more important than management. Everyone can get better at leading as we are all a work in progress. Leadership takes experience and involves putting ideas to practice.
In terms of SpaceX, Musk employs over 6000 people. He claims, “Leaders are expected to work harder than those who report to them”. According to CNBC, Musk has 3 pieces of advice for how to be a great leader:
- Hire people who are smarter than you
- Do not go with the flow- challenge the status quo
- Focus on your foundation first- understand the fundamentals of what you’re doing
- Ability to Negotiate
SpaceX is one of the greatest examples of negotiation. According to the Digital Project Manager, “Project management is somewhat like politics; it often brings together a disparate group of people, often with competing interests, and our job is to get these different interests on the same page, so that we can accomplish project goals.”
One of the factors adding to SpaceX’s success, is the NASA negotiations. In order to gain enough revenue for the projects, Musk has contracts with NASA to carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station. This resulted in SpaceX being a leader in commercial launch services, which dramatically impacted their budget.
Without these negotiations SpaceX wouldn’t have the funding it has today, and the reality of colonising Mars would still be far from reach. In terms of effective project management, negotiation skills are critical for a successful project. As you work with many different people from different areas of expertise, it’s important that you have a strong ability to negotiate.
- Risk Management skills
I think it is safe to assume that the larger the project, so the amount of risks increase. In terms of SpaceX, one of the initial risks was pouring money into the design of reusable rockets. Rockets which were not initially successful. It took many failed attempts before the first rocket was viable. In 2015, Falcon 9 ‘disintegrated’ just minutes after take off, which according to the Wall Street Journal, meant that SpaceX lost around $260 million.
Effective project management comes down to experience and knowing what could go wrong. As SpaceX were the pioneers of this type of project, risk management would have been difficult. Project Smart lists 10 Golden Rules for Project Risk Management:
- Make Risk Management Part of Your Project
- Identify Risks Early In Your Project
- Communicate About Risks
- Consider Both Threats and Opportunities
- Clarify Ownership Issues
- Prioritise Risks
- Analyse Risks
- Plan and Implement Risk Responses
- Register Project Risks
- Track Risks and Associated Tasks
- Time Management
One aspect of SpaceX that seems to stand out, is the time in which they will achieve their goal of reaching Mars. Unlike many space exploration operations, SpaceX has released short term goals to the public, with a time-line. As we can see below, SpaceX outlines their next steps which is an example of time management. By setting realistic dates, this not only inspires investors, it inspires the SpaceX workforce too.
SpaceX Mars Timeline
Image courtesy of inverse.com
According to inloox.com, “Time Management is essentially the ability to organize and plan the time spent on activities in a day. The result of good time management is increased effectiveness and productivity. It is a key aspect of project management and involves skills such as planning, setting goals and prioritising for a better performance.”
A good strategy that works really well in managing time is to always have an agenda and stick to it. For effective project management being able to stick to a specific time frame can mean the difference between delivering on time or not. The trick is not to work more, but to work more efficiently, which can be achieved through time management.
- Subject Matter Expertise
Elon Musk is not only the founder and CEO of SpaceX, he’s also the lead designer. In project management it’s important to know the subject matter relating to the project. If you’re a subject matter expert you can understand the possibilities and limitations of the project. By knowing your subject matter, this means you can have intelligent and informed conversations with clients, team, stakeholders, and suppliers.
With qualifications and experience in business and physics, this allows Musk to have a hands on approach to SpaceX, which could be attributed to the organisation’s success. This is one of the reasons why project management is so exciting, as it can merge into many different fields, which require you to learn more than just principles of management. Musk may have no formal training in rocketry, but he does have an eye for new markets. As an entrepreneur, and an interest in multi-planetary life, this combination allowed him to lead the way for SpaceX.
- Cost Control
One of the major factors that contributed to SpaceX’s succes, relates to their approach to cost control. In order for SpaceX to be succesful financially, they rely on contracts with NASA to carry cargo and crew to the International Space Station. They also revolutionised the approach to rocket design by creating ‘reusable’ rockets which dramatically impacted their budget. By reducing the cost of access to space, they are able to carry out their project objectives, namely to make life multi-planetary.
In terms of effective project management, cost control is always a challenging task. Correct budgeting can mean the difference between a projects success or failure. The piece of advice we can take from SpaceX is that they designed a project which understood stakeholders true needs and wants. They were able to cut costs of their product design (reusable rocket) in order to achieve a tangible goal (reducing the cost of space travel).
If cost-control is an area which you think you could improve upon, then check out CIO’s article on 5 tips for Managing your Project Budget.
- Critical Thinking
Lastly, when it comes to decision making, critical thinking is crucial. Without Elon Musk’s vision and ability to apply critical thinking, we wouldn’t have the SpaceX we know today. SpaceX is the result of applying critical thinking to developing creative solutions in order to solve problems. Musk saw a problem, namely, we are not an interplanetary species, and applied a solution, make space travel cost effective.
In terms of the economic climate today, Project Managers are forced to do more with less. With strict budgets, and shrinking work force, it’s important to be able to maximise resources in order to see a return on investment. This may require critical thinking. If you’re able to apply this skill, it will result in you being able to transform your creativity into practical business solutions.
Often, the perception is that project management is only about major developments, such as SpaceX for example, but actually, the principles can be distilled right down to the smallest scale. As a Project Manager, you don’t need to look far to find inspiration for effective project management. The field of project management overlaps into many different areas which is one of the reasons why it is such an exciting industry to be in. If you’re new to project management, or you would like to validate your existing knowledge and skills, then check out our Project Management Career Programme. Who knows, you could be the next Elon Musk, taking on the world through effective project management.
If you would like to add to this list of skills for effective project management, use our comment section to let us in on what you think!