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Not Everyone Can Build a Helicopter That Flies on Mars
“Not everyone can build a helicopter that flies on Mars, and that’s okay.” An actual thing I said during a recent meeting here at Simantel.
Let me back up. We’ll set the scene.
It’s 7:30 in the morning, a cross-functional team has gathered to ideate around how to solve several interdependent business challenges for a prospective client. The pitch deadline is looming and half of us are functioning exclusively by the grace of caffeine.
One of my leaders has the audacity to say, “Explain this to me because you’re smart and I’m not.” This is factually untrue.
I answer her question and then ask her to stop saying she’s “not smart.” We dive into a brief sidebar about how possessing knowledge on a specific topic that someone else does not possess does not make the possessor of said information better or smarter in any way than the person who did not have the same information.
“Not everyone can build a helicopter that flies on Mars, and that’s okay.”
Here’s the thing: I know I’m smart. I don’t say that to be arrogant. It’s taken me a lot of work to openly admit that I like the thing that makes me special, but I don’t think it makes me any better than anyone else who I share this planet with. I saw a cheeky social commentary following the launch of the Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter that explained intellectual capability as a spectrum:
People envy the thing about me that they feel like they lack, which is an overabundance of information and processing power. I put value on information and knowledge. But I envy the capabilities and emotional IQ of my other Simantel team members that I lack.
- Being comfortable leaning into their vulnerability
- Easily commanding presence and holding space
- Building meaningful relationships with others with ease
- Being capable of small talk without extreme discomfort or general awkwardness
- Literal artistry and creative vision
- Being able to recite a custom excel formula they haven’t yet written
- Being able to code in more languages than I know exist.
- Intuitively knowing how to show up for others
- And so much more
The thing is, even though I’m smart: I can’t build a helicopter that flies on Mars either.
Maybe no one person can. The team that worked on the Ingenuity Helicopter project had 150 total members.
I have been so lucky to work at a place that truly values collaboration and genuinely believes we are better together. It is the combination of our different perspectives and balancing of our unique skills that makes the work we produce something to be proud of.
Want to Foster This Kind of Environment in Your Organization?
- Remember when you are looking for the “Rockstars” in your organization that the whole band is made up of rockstars.
Sometimes the musical genius is the drummer, but that doesn’t mean the ensemble works without your front man.
Place equal value on all of their contributions and don’t neglect to acknowledge and reward the contributions of less “visible” employees in the organization. You may think this is not a problem in your organization, but a recent Gallup Poll found that 65% of employees feel underappreciated at work.
- Hold space for dissenting opinions.
Opposition to an idea isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the 33M search results on Google for how to handle opposition at work are a solid indicator that it’s something many of us struggle to navigate.
Remember that opposition isn’t a personal attack. Often, it’s a valid well-meaning warning. While we are fueled on progress forward, the people in our organization who ask us to pause, or put the breaks on, are typically doing so out of a vested interest in getting us to our destination safely.
When you get dissenting opinions hear them and lead solution-based ideation around newly presented issues. Don’t dismiss the issue.
- Embrace multi-directional leadership and mentorship
We all know the cost of a bad manager. We’re going to assume that you don’t have any of those. But even great managers can struggle to build meaningful connection with certain team members. Not everyone gels no matter how hard all parties try. Other times, team members can be too alike and it can limit the growth potential of an individual.
Allow team members to find leadership and mentorship across your organization, even if they don’t directly report to their mentor.
We learn different things from people who move through the world in a way that feels familiar to us than those who do so in ways that feel foreign and uncomfortable. Both are equally important opportunities for growth and development.
- Don’t set goals that drive individualist behaviors. Shared goals are great.
We’re all human and we all want to meet our goals. Do not put your team members in a place that encourages them to reject collaboration because it complicates their ability to meet performance metrics you have set for them.
A painfully classic example I see of this in our industry:
The business metric you need to achieve is an increase in sales, but instead of making that everyone’s shared goal, we look at ways to split it up.
Marketing’s goal becomes increasing leads and Sales’ goal become improving close rate. Seems great in theory. If we get more leads and they are closed at a higher volume, we’ll hit our company’s sales goal.
But well-meaning or not, you’ve laid the groundwork for the Marketing employees to increase lead volume at all costs. Meanwhile the Sales team starts to reject all prospects that are unlikely to close to protect their close rate. You leave them to blame each other for the business goal not being met.
Instead, when they have the shared goal of achieving the business’ objective, you’re asking them to work together on solutions to solve the problem.
- How do we drive enough qualified leads to meet the sales goal?
- What other ways can we support the closing process to improve the close rate together?
- Are their ways to generate revenue that are outside of our constraints (hours in a day, staffing, etc)?
Give people problems to solve collectively using their unique skills and area of specialty, not lanes to occupy and defend.
- Don’t tolerate the blame game.
In truth, very few failures of an organization fall on the shoulders of a single person or department. Far more often issues are muti-faceted or systemic. When you see struggles within a department look for the root causes of the issue(s). Include questioning around what they need from others that they aren’t getting to be successful in your investigation.
Set the expectation with teams that when someone or a department is struggling, we hold shared responsibility for helping to fix that problem.
Whether you’re building helicopters that can fly on uninhabited planets, manufacturing parts or equipment that help to keep our world moving, caring for people in your community, or developing effective teams of people to solve the hard challenges of your industry, I hope you’ve got a killer team on your side because it makes all the difference.
And if your amazing team could use a few other brilliant and kind people with expertise in the fields of marketing or communication, I know some of the best problem solvers in the biz you can reach out to.