Coordinate: How to Prevent Minor Missteps from Becoming Major Problems

A little neglect may breed mischief ...for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;for want of a shoe the horse was lost;and for want of a horse the rider was lost.–Benjamin FranklinIn December 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter, intending for it to orbit the red planet and send back information about the atmosphere and climate. The launch was completed without incident, and the probe was slated to make its way into orbit in September 1999. But unbeknownst to mission control, a piece of critical software provided by contractor Lockheed Martin was operating in pound-seconds—and the NASA software it interacted with was operating in newton-seconds. The result was catastrophic: The Mars Climate Orbiter slammed into the Martian atmosphere at the wrong angle and disintegrated completely, taking with it a half-decade of work and some $327 million.Maybe you've got the best and smartest people in the world working in your organization. Maybe you've got your program off the ground and it's moving smoothly in the right direction. Hell, maybe you’ve got $327 million to throw around. But if your people aren't able to coordinate properly, a few missteps can make the difference between mission success and meteoric failure.PLOTTING A PRECISE TRAJECTORYTo get an idea of the importance of proper coordination, think about all the things that make an average day for one of your student-athletes. She’ll have practice, class, mandatory team meals, film, tutoring...maybe she’ll have scheduled time in the weight room or a medical appointment to work on rehab for a nagging injury. Some days she’ll have to show up to a media interview or meet with the equipment manager.All of that has to be orchestrated properly, and a seemingly minor oversight can have a waterfall of consequences: Let's say you've got that athlete double-booked for some rehab work at the same time as her tutoring session. She's working through an ACL tear, and she has an important midterm coming up this week. If she makes it to tutoring but doesn't get the memo about rehab, she'll ace her test but she won't be in great shape for the game on Saturday. Her mobility and her endurance will suffer, she won't be able to contribute as well on the field, and she'll be at greater risk of a season-ending reinjury—all problems that could have been mitigated, not necessarily by someone noticing the double-booking at the last minute but rather (and this next bit is important) by having a robust set of procedures and fail-safes in place to prevent double-bookings in the first place.Think about all of those things that make up her average day; think about all of the nearly invisible failure points, all of the appointments and moving parts, all of the problems more complex than a simple double-booking...then think about how many athletes you've got in your organization. What are you doing to prevent all of those countless little problems from occurring?PHONING HOMEIn the case of NASA’s failed Mars Climate Orbiter, the problem with mismatched units could very likely have been fixed—at least two navigators had spoken up about a strange discrepancy between where the probe was and where it should have been. But the information either didn’t make its way into the right hands or wasn’t given the urgent treatment it deserved, and for want of effective communication, the rocket was lost.The navigators who sounded the alarm fell victim to a familiar problem: We’re liable to assume that if a message was sent, it was received and dealt with accordingly. William H. Whyte is credited with coining a rather elegant adage about the problem for Fortune magazine in 1950: “The greatest enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.”When you’re at the helm of a vast, complex organization, you can’t just assume that everyone knows where they need to be, what they need to be doing, and when they need to be doing it, even if you know the information was made available to them. On the other hand, of course, you also can't spend all of your time managing each little detail and making sure everything is being coordinated correctly yourself. The solution lies in preparation: Like all good leaders, you need to enable your staff members with the toolset and strategic plan they need to succeed without micromanagement. Your staff's communication strategy, then, needs to be systematic, well-structured, and scalable; it also needs to be nimble and allow you and your staff to reach a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.TOUCHING DOWNOnce you put in the groundwork setting up those tools and procedures, getting everyone moving in the same direction gets a lot less difficult. You'll still have the occasional hiccup, of course, but you'll have drastically reduced the odds of a minor mishap mushrooming into a catastrophic failure. You need to recognize the changing times, make a conscious investment in intelligent communication, and give your people what they need to work together effectively and get the job done.It's not easy, but at the end of the's not rocket science, either.About the Author: As Founder and President, former Duke Football player Zach Maurides has revolutionized communication and information sharing for athletic organizations across the country. What began as Maurides’ class project during his sophomore year at Duke University in 2004 has become the industry leader with an impressive list over 800 current clients.

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