​The Parable of the Moonshot Janitor

When Science Meets Fiction

  
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Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon
   Bob Dylan

An apocryphal story about the early days of NASA’s Apollo program has long made the rounds. Perhaps you have heard it. Many versions feature President John F. Kennedy touring a NASA facility, but that one seems too contrived. I will tell my preferred version with a good deal of embroidery.

Once upon a time, during the early days of Project Apollo, a group of reporters was touring a NASA facility. Remember that at this time NASA was primarily focused on landing humans on the moon. Every mission, be it the Mercuries, the Geminis, or the early Apollos, no matter how Earth-bound, was a step toward that goal.

These lucky reporters had the rare privilege of being let loose for a day to ask NASA personnel whatever they wanted, but they found themselves out of their element in the novel and highly technical NASA environment. It was difficult to communicate with the jargon-prone NASA personnel. Exasperated, the newsmen resorted to simply walking up to NASA employees and asking what they did there, but even then the answers were hopelessly specialized and utterly baffling to these hapless scribes. Every interview followed the same irksome pattern and ended with the NASA technician falling back on a standard formula: “Well, sir, I guess you could just write down that I am helping to put a man on the moon.” That response was at least sincere and accurate if journalistically useless.

One reporter was feeling particularly vexed. He was the seasoned lion of the group, a tough old cuss with a booming voice and boisterous style, and the others deferred to him readily. He wore an old brown fedora and chewed on unlit cigar stumps constantly, looking every bit the part of the grizzled newshound. Having long worked a police beat, he was an ace interrogator who could always rely on the combination of his disarming wit and intimidating arrogance to squeeze information from his marks. That day, the veteran newspaperman had pulled out all stops, at first applying humor to lighten up the NASA geeks, and, failing that, turning to intimidation to soften them. No dice. They were unflappable. What could he do with all this technical mumbo-jumbo they fed him? Where was the story? The engineering boys at NASA sure seemed to know what they were doing, but they were terrible at explaining it to a layman.

After a long day of asking over and over “and what do you do here” and hearing a pile of technical jargon followed by the same canned but heartfelt response—“helping to put a man on the moon”—the veteran reporter convinced his colleagues it was time to blow that joint and head to an early happy hour down the road. Everyone was delighted, but he was still miffed. As they moved toward the door, our old newshound spied a small stooped man working a mop up the hallway. The reporter, ever eager to punch below his class, thought it a fine opportunity to blow off some steam and to show off his waggish humor for his buddies. The man with the mop was surprised when the gruff old reporter approached him and asked one last time, “And, you sir, what do you do here?”

The old reporter’s colleagues snickered at the gag, particularly when they saw the anguished confusion on the janitor’s face. The tough old coot questioning him looked as formidable as ever without even a hint of a smile. How would the janitor react? Would he mumble in embarrassment and shame? After all, he was the lowliest worker among all the NASA hotshots. Or, would he respond rudely at being the butt of a joke, a big mistake considering the fearsomeness of his interrogator?

The custodian, a humble man by nature, quickly gathered his wits. He used his mop handle to push himself up straight, squared his shoulders, and looked his would-be antagonist right in the eye. He thrust out his chest, and through a thick foreign accent said as boldly as he could, “Why, sir, I am helping to put a man on the moon.”

Whether the questioner be a hardened reporter or the President of the United States, this story is likely an urban legend, but it is still a wonderful illustration of the power of organizational mission focus. If any institution ever had such a focus, it was NASA in the sixties, but even for NASA the degree of mission-focus described in the story seems implausible.1

Whatever its precise veracity, this tale is a fine parable for the the power of mission focus.

The leaders and employees of most mission-driven organizations typically will support their mission to some degree, but that support needs to pervade every aspect of the organization. Everything needs to be soaked in it. If your organization’s mission is to feed the hungry, then everyone ideally needs to understand that each piece of the operation is there to feed the hungry. Obtaining food is just as key as drawing up the budget, which is just as key as distributing that food, which is just as key as copying informational flyers, which is just as key as marshaling volunteers, which is just as key as maintaining your computers. If some activity does not to some extent support that mission, you need to reassess its value. If any part of the operation is not optimal, then the operation is not optimal.

A quick caveat: naturally, top-to-bottom mission focus is never a license for not doing right by your people. Mission is never an excuse for worker exploitation. In other words, don’t do good by doing bad.

Getting everyone to understand their role in fulfilling the mission and to focus on that is challenging but vital. Doing so will help transform people’s relationship with the organization and the work. It will also reveal those at every rank who may not fully support the work or the goals of the organization. In the end, such an all-inclusive mission focus will aid you as you pursue the moonshot of your own mission. You cannot afford to miss.

1

The alt-history series For All Mankind, does a good job representing NASA’s famous mission focus without romanticizing it. The show also gives a nod to the legend I relate here by including a NASA custodian in a recurring story line.


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