If you set up a crazy goal, sometimes you hit it. Some of humanity’s most impressive achievements began this way. So, does this apply to business today?
You don't need a genius, or a once-in-a-generation person, to solve those big problems.
You have to be careful with setting up crazy goals because sometimes you hit them. Or, if you don’t hit them, you might not miss by much. So, what if reaching for the unreachable is not a terrible idea after all?
There have been many times when men and women have dreamt of (and even promised!) something seemingly unrealistic. In this article, we will see some examples of crazy goals and how they were achieved and see why just the act of setting them can lead to better management and achievement.
JFK and the Moon Landing
In 1961, Kennedy stood before the US Congress and said the country would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. You would think that when he said this, that he had some idea of how they were going to achieve it. But he didn’t, he hadn’t even consulted NASA, he just came out and said it. He then actually apologised to the head of NASA for putting them on the spot. But he was in luck because, apparently, NASA had been thinking about it for a while. Good timing for JFK!
So, back to the space agency and their sudden realisation that they would have to speed up the work. How did they go about dealing with JFK’s promise? Well, as we said, NASA had been considering the possibility of a moon landing for a while. This was the 60s, so you can imagine the type of technology they had access to.
Fortunately, most of the maths that was required to get to the moon and back could be worked out on paper. The computers onboard Apollo were mostly controllers, so the complex navigation calculations were done on the ground instead. The spaceship itself was tracked with a radio. All in all, after some consideration, the whole thing looked doable, but can you imagine the number of steps that would be required to actually plan the landing?
So NASA got to work, this time with an actual timeframe in mind. The first thing they did was break down the problem into a lot of steps. I’m not sure what granularity they used, but I can imagine there were a few pressing ones. Then, they saw which they could already solve and which ones were outside their capabilities. Lastly, they commenced working on the ones that weren’t possible yet.
For example, one of the main problems NASA was facing when planning to send a man to the moon (and bring him back, which was kind of important, too!) was the rocket. No rockets could go that far yet. There was no GPS, the microprocessor was just a year old, and the moon was (still is, as far as I’m concerned) about 239,900 miles away. How did you get that far and find a safe spot to land on a surface filled with craters and boulders? And there was more; much more. How do you supply oxygen for the trip? How do you communicate with the astronauts? And, hang on, they actually want to broadcast the whole thing live??
NASA started breaking down these problems. If you’ve faced a similar challenge, you might be familiar with the creativity bubble that can be created around a team tackling an impossible task. But hey, they put themselves out there, they went somewhere mad… and managed to achieve one of humankind’s most outstanding achievements.
The Challenge of Reusable Rockets
We have an innate instinct to climb a ladder. We think: If we can do this, then we can perhaps do that, too. This tends to work because we are able to focus on a first task before moving on to the next.
Let’s look at another example of someone shooting for the moon (and mars, and possibly the entire solar system, should he become the first person to live to 1000): Elon Musk. While everyone kept pondering about fuel efficiency and the massive costs of launching things into orbit, he said: What if we actually reused the rockets? SpaceX wasn’t the first company to attempt reusable rockets, but most people in the industry considered the goal a holy grail - and one that was outside what we could do with the technology available at the time. The same issue plagued discussions around the space elevator, a concept consisting of a cable anchored to the surface of the planet. Some people tried to break down its construction, too but got stuck at the lack of materials that could be both strong enough and light enough to create the orbital lift.
Of course, when SpaceX was founded, very few people thought it was possible to carry payloads into space for a competitive price. Elon Musk had said from the beginning that his business goal was to make spaceflight more affordable and revolutionise the aerospace industry.
So, why did this man's crazy goal work? Well, we cannot deny money plays a huge factor in the space industry. The previous attempts at building reusable rockets were usually cancelled early because the companies just couldn't afford to keep working on the necessary steps (for instance, the Roton ATV, made in the 1990s, ceased development because Iridium went bankrupt. Many others were ahead of their time and couldn't find more money to continue development).
Musk believed humans could become an interplanetary species and set up to put SpaceX in charge of it. Twenty years (and many crashed rockets) later, they are sending cargo and men to the ISS on a regular basis. Luckily, he could afford all these steps and tests thanks to some of his other crazy goals doing so well.
Do You Need a Genius to Set Up Impossible Goals?
When thinking about impossible business goals, it’s common to wonder whether you need a leader or a specific person to say: This is our goal, and here’s how we can start reverse-engineering this business need. Someone that can define and take incremental steps to get to what seems like a crazy goal.
I don't think you need a genius, or a once-in-a-generation person, to solve those big problems. You just need to start with your end goal and, instead of turning it into an overwhelming issue, just begin taking the steps
towards resolving it. You might fail, you might run out of money or you might encounter a roadblock that is beyond any detailed scoping. Or... you might succeed. And then you're changing the game entirely.
Let’s quickly see another example, one closest to earth: Running. If you don’t run and you get stuck thinking about how impossible it seems to get to a point where you can run a marathon, you won’t get very far. When you start running, you start smaller. You do two miles. Five miles. You run them a little faster each time - and you just keep improving. Yes, it might take a while to get there, but no matter your age, you can usually train enough to run a marathon.
Now, think of all the problems we could solve if we tackled, for example, the issue of creating energy out of nothing (or, to abide by the rules of thermodynamics, out of a little matter; since Einstein showed matter is energy). This transformational first step could then ensure there was endless energy to help desalinate water, solve climate change and solve almost every major global challenge we face. And moon landings and mars landings would become easy. We could do so much if we had access to unlimited energy!
We are already making some progress in finding out how to do this. A UK team, for example, was able to produce more fusion energy than energy they had put in the experiment using something called laser fusion. This is an excellent goal. You set it up as something we, as a species, can achieve… and we start working on the steps required to create this type of almost-endless energy. If you don’t set the goal, then you will never start working on the little steps either.
Setting what at first seems like unrealistic goals can be a great way to achieve something unexpected - or at least get so close to it that you can call the whole endeavour a success. I’m sure Musk’s first engine concept for his reusable rockets looked nothing like the Falcon 9. Every time SpaceX launches a Starship, we see new features. Every model is slightly different to the previous one, as the company systematically deals with the challenge of safely (and cheaply) taking humans into space.
Psychologists have proven reaching for these seemingly impossible goals can help you focus and sustain momentum, no matter if you're doing it to run a marathon or because you've promised the members of Congress a moon landing.
You can’t manage something you haven’t measured, and you can’t improve on things you haven’t managed properly. So, allow yourself a moment to dream… and then slowly start the job of breaking down the steps to get there.