It was Christmas Eve, 1968. It had been a long, tumultuous year. Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated. Riots were raging throughout the country, some driven by the assassinations, some by the Vietnam War. A high stakes gamble was about to take place. NASA was about to launch the Apollo 8 mission with the goal of becoming the first lunar manned mission.
The United States was loosing the space race to the Soviet Union. In September 1968, several animals were sent to orbit the moon by the Soviets, with the expectation that cosmonauts would follow shortly. The U.S. space program was not on track to reach the moon by the end of the decade. It was plagued by setbacks and tragedies, including the loss of all three Apollo 1 astronauts the year before in a launch pad fire.
Sixteen weeks prior to the Apollo 8 launch date, a decision was made to radically change the trajectory of the space program. The Apollo 9 crew and ship were pulled forward, to become Apollo 8. Its mission was changed from an earth orbit to a lunar orbit. The goal was to become the first lunar manned mission. And with that decision, the U.S. space program went from unfocused and losing ground to once again leading the space race.
What does this have to do with Uber? Like the space program, Uber finds itself in the midst of turmoil. It stands to loose ground to its competition and is likely to start drifting away from its goals. Following are five key lessons that Uber can learn from the success of Apollo 8:
Lesson 1: Keep your eye on the ball
On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy declared the goal for the U.S. space program—put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy felt great pressure to win the space race after the Soviet Union successfully launched a manned mission to orbit the earth four years before the U.S. was able to launch a shorter, manned mission. It was embarrassing. After a number of setbacks with the loss of life and equipment failures, NASA lost focus of its goal and became increasing risk averse. The training and equipment necessary to reach the moon were not moving forward at a pace to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Uber has described its vision as providing cheap and efficient transportation for people today and goods and services in the future. With the shakeup at the top of Uber, the senior ranks have been gutted. While the top roles are being filled, there is no one person at the top to call the shots. Rather, the leadership is being shared by a number of people across the organization. The challenge in this situation is lack of urgency to move forward and achieve goals. In a growing industry, losing focus can be the kiss of death.
Lesson 2: Don’t let competition gain ground
NASA lost its focus and was drifting. In the fall of 1968, NASA was advised by the CIA that the Soviet Union planned to launch a manned lunar mission. Years of stumbling had allowed the Soviet Union to gain ground in the space race. It had just completed an unmanned lunar mission while the U.S. was focused on low Earth orbit missions. With that news, NASA had a new sense of urgency. They quickly refocused and quickly solidified its lead against the Soviet Union in the space race.
Uber is undergoing severe organizational turmoil and competitors are moving in. Lyft is offering discounts and incentives, ridesharing companies around the world are receiving significant funding. They are poised to capture market share. Uber has the first to market advantage. During this time of transition, it is important not to let the competition gain ground.
Lesson 3: Having a win is important
1968 was a tough year. The country was in turmoil and was badly in need of some positive news. The choice of launching the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve, with ten lunar orbits on Christmas day was not an accident. The selection was made to highlight the mission success on a day when all could tune in and listen. A day that marked a new beginning, as witnessed by the reading of Genesis by the astronauts and the Earthrise picture taken by William Anders.
Uber has faced setback after setback in the last few years. These are not internal setbacks. They plaster the front pages of every newspaper, magazine and articles circulating the web. When negative news dominates that message, it is important to have a win to declare things are back on track and give the people a reason to celebrate. Earthrise has become a symbol of the achievement of the Apollo 8 mission and the U.S. space program. Uber needs a symbol to show it has turned the corner and had its first win.
Don’t let failure hold you back
Apollo 8 was the first manned mission utilizing the Saturn V rocket, the only rocket capable of reaching the moon and back. The rocket suffered many setbacks, including several engine failures and not reigniting in orbit. The problems were so severe that until they were resolved, manned flights would not be authorized. With the clear goal of achieving a manned flight to orbit the moon, the failures were identified and resolved. Testing just three days before the launch confirmed the fixes worked. The easy way out would have been pointing to failures and pushing the timeline back, or canceling the mission all together. Rather, they quickly learned from the failures, fixed them and moved forward.
Workplace culture, lawsuits, losses, physical security, and cyber security failures have plagued Uber. Many of these failures come from rapid growth and not having a strong foundation in place. In order to be successful long term, Uber must resolve the critical failures quickly and move forward. In doing so, Uber should exercise caution in not over engineering its processes and governance structure, thereby restricting speed and creativity.
Take calculated risks
For a man to achieve lunar orbit by the end of 1968, the order of missions had to be reorganized. A successful Apollo 7 mission was required before others proceeded to test the command service module design. The successful 11-day October 1968 mission allowed the remaining missions to proceed. Moving the Apollo 9 mission forward to become Apollo 8 shaved off months of training by the team, accelerated resolution of problems plagued by the Saturn V rocket, and placed the launch date on the most visible day of the year. It was a calculated risk, but one that all felt could be managed in order to get the program back on track. A sense of urgency was instilled and the mission was successful.
Uber made its mark by taking risks and breaking the rules. It allowed them to establish a new industry in ridesharing. It also got them in a lot of trouble. Companies that face a series of setbacks typically become too conservative. The risk of facing more setbacks vs. taking additional time to get it right is too high a price to pay. Uber can’t afford not to take calculated risks. Its current valuation assumes a continued high rate of growth. That growth cannot be achieved if Uber becomes too conservative.
There are many parallels between the situations experienced by the space program in the 1960s and Uber. Many of the lessons from the Apollo 8 mission are easily applied to Uber. The turning point for NASA was the sense of urgency to launch Apollo 8. Has Uber reached its turning point yet? We’ll learn in time. In the meantime, the five lessons above should act as a roadmap to get refocused.
Heidi Pozzo helps leaders grow their businesses in good times and bad. Before starting her own consulting firm, she helped engineer the turnaround of a $800MM organization. According to Deutsche Bank analyst Mark Wilde, the transformation was considered a “textbook example” of restructuring an old line business and “may be the best turnaround case study we have seen in the past 25 years.” Heidi was recognized by the Portland Business Journal for her work at Longview as CFO of the Year – Large Company. To contact her, email at Heidi@PozzoConsulting.com or visit www.PozzoConsulting.com.
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