Proximate Objectives

Excerpts from Good Strategy ? Bad Strategy

Rumelt, Richard, 2001, Crown Publishing, New York, New York

ISBN 978-0-307-88623-1

Chapter Seven:      Proximate Objectives

President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade

In his speech, Kennedy diagnosed the problem as world opinion. He said, "The dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere."  He argued that the Soviet Union's strategy of focusing its much poorer technological resources on space was leveraging, to its advantage, the world's natural interest in these out-of-this-world accomplishments. He argued that being the first to land people on the moon would be a dramatic affirmation of American leadership. The United States had, ultimately, much greater resources to draw upon; it was a matter of allocating and coordinating them.

 

Resolving Ambiguity

Two years after Kennedy committed the United States to landing a person on the moon, I was working as an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). There I learned that a good proximate objective's feasibility does wonders for organizational energy and focus.

One of the main projects at JPL was SURVEYOR, an unmanned machine that would soft-land on the moon, take measurements and photographs, and, in later missions, deploy a small roving vehicle. The most vexing problem for the Surveyor design team had been that no one knew what the moon's surface was like. Scientists had worked up three of four theories about how the moon was formed. The lunar surface might be soft, the powdery residue of eons of meteoric bombardment. It might be a nest of needle-sharp crystals. It might be a jumble of large boulders, like glacial moraine. Would a vehicle sink into the powder? Would it be speared on needle-like crystals? Would it wedge between giant boulders? Given this ambiguity about the lunar surface, engineers had a difficult time creating designs for Surveyor. It wasn't that you couldn't design a vehicle; it was that you couldn't defend any one design against someone else's story about the possible horrors of the lunar surface.

Phyllis BUWALDA, directed Future Mission Studies and JPL.

The lunar surface that Phyllis described was hard and grainy, with slopes of no more than fifteen degrees, scattered small stones, and boulders no larger than two feet across spaced here and there. Looking at this specification for the first time I was amazed. "Phyllis", I said, "this looks a lot like the Southwestern desert."

"Yes doesn't it," she said with a smile.

"But," I complained, "You really don't know what the moon is like. Why write a spec saying it is like the local desert?"

"This is what the smoother parts of the earth are like, so it is probably a good guess as to what we'll find on the moon if we stay away from the mountains."

"But you really have no idea what the surface of the moon is like! It could be powder or jagged needles."

"Look," she said, "the engineers can't work without a specification. If it turns out to be a lot more difficult than this, we aren't going to be spending much time on the moon anyway."

 

The rest is history!