Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) gained the unique status of reaching the moon last week probably using the most nondescript resources. This has been one of the most challenging projects for the entire humankind. ISRO made this happen with a paltry sum of money compared to the scale of the problem they were solving. They were treading the uncharted territories. Their team was a bunch of folks, their only ammunition being a long tenure at ISRO. Their salaries and benefits were not even 50% of the best their peers in the market earned. They did not study in the elite universities of India, let alone the best in the world. Their work environments weren’t the most inviting and attractive for them. Their families did not receive anything special that they could proudly wear a badge of honour on their sleeves. So, in many respects, a bunch of ordinary people came together to solve a challenge that billions have not been able to solve for decades. How did this happen?
It is possible!
In our mythological text, Ramayan, a bunch of monkeys were able to do what nobody in that time could even dream of. They had no know-how and wisdom to get this done. Their power was no match with the powers they were trying to conquer. The obstacles before them were incredibly hard. Yet they succeeded!
Getting extraordinary results with a team of ordinary people is not only possible but has been achieved by many successful leaders and organizations. Are there lessons to be learned?
A couple of lessons worth emulating:
Leaders communicated a clear and inspiring vision to their teams. When people understand the bigger picture and the impact their work can have, they become more motivated and aligned. ISRO scientists on the mission knew that they were onto something spectacular, and they could directly contribute to the mission of reaching the moon. They would achieve what nobody else in their circle has ever done. Moreover, they would make their near and dear ones immensely proud. Probably, this was the biggest gift they could give to their friends, families, and relatives. Financial rewards, certificates and bonuses did not matter for them. They trusted their leader’s vision and were on a mission despite several challenges that their daily lives were inundated with!
These exceptional leaders identify and utilise each team member’s strengths. Ordinary people often have unique talents that can be harnessed to contribute significantly to the team’s success. Often a firm’s structure, description of the roles, and organisational processes that help the workflow in a certain manner become massive debacles on the way of using each team member’s aspirations and strengths. Strong leaders often bend the rules a bit and show flexibility to make minor tweaks in the organisation’s structure, systems and processes to get things going. While it is often argued that large organisations need systems, processes and rules to function, strong leaders make a few exceptions here and there keeping the ethical code of conduct and spirit of the organisation intact. Such innovation allows them enough elbow room to function. They take care not to break the cultural fabric of the firm; rather they make it blossom further. This is a tightrope walk and they do this adeptly.
Why the old practices have not been working?
When leaders want better outcomes, they bring in additional bonuses, track performance closely, publish leaderboards, keep nudging their teams and sometimes, they will whip and punish the folks on the slow lane. Certainly, these are the tried and tested methods! But, the large question is if this is relevant in 2023.
A large part of the workforce looks at their work life with as much importance as they give to the other aspects of their life. Friends, family, passion and interest have become much more important than what they were for the employees a couple of decades ago. As our socio-economic changes have been taking shape, today’s workforce expects a lot more than the monetary rewards from their work. A significant number of them expect a connection with the organisation’s purpose and ethical standards. Factors such as personal development opportunities, respect at work, freedom to operate, trust levels among colleagues and camaraderie were always important. However, they are more important for today’s employees than the ones in the 90’s and before.
Moreover, the work environment is increasingly fast-paced, volatile and dynamic. Hence, we need our workforce to exhibit agility and resilience, act proactively, collaborate and solve problems on their own. They need to demonstrate high levels of ownership of everything they do. Hence, the old methods of rewards and punishment, nudges and whips to bring the best out of our workforce have been failing. To make things more complex, leaders have the unique challenge of leading their folks in a style very different from what they have been exposed to.
While these strategies can help maximise the potential of ordinary team members, it is also important to recognise that extraordinary results might not always be consistent or guaranteed. The goal is to create an environment that fosters growth, collaboration, and innovation, allowing individuals to exceed their expectations and achieve remarkable outcomes.