In the award-winning movie and book “The Martian,” NASA astronaut Mark Watney, is accidentally stranded on Mars. Through the story, he overcomes challenges against the elements and limited supplies with creativity and resourcefulness.
While his fellow astronauts on earth and in space work tirelessly to find a way to bring him home, his quick-thinking and strategic planning gave the new mission the very best chance for success. “The Martian” offers a lot of insight for anyone in leadership who finds themselves facing changing plans.
Waking up to a warning light telling him he was running out of air, Watney solved the problem quickly and then retreated to the safety of the HAB, his home for the mission. Once out of immediate danger, he took the time to overcome what would become his most regular obstacle, hopelessness.
Good strategy means you’ll see the big shifts coming in regulations, market share, or technology trends. However, dramatic changes can occur and require calm planning and response. Recent financial crises required measured action from banks and the government to prevent an economic collapse. Explosions in online purchases threatened brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy and forced them to take a step back and create a more efficient business model.
Watney had several advantages— a fully stocked habitat, supplies for more than a year, billions of dollars in state‐of‐the‐art equipment, the best possible skill set for his situation, and time to focus on problem-solving. Likewise, when you’re facing problems, you need to take inventory of your resources. Whether your current strategic challenges were predictable or unexpected, you must know what you have and what you’ll need moving forward.
When assessing your inventory of resources, remember to think beyond funding, supplies, and equipment—manpower and experience are often overlooked. Can your team bring more to the table than they’ve been tasked with? Your team might see the crisis as an opportunity to prove their greater value to the company.
A convenience store company began petitioning their hourly associates for new product ideas and location suggestion, offering prizes and rewards for ideas that panned out. Ideas poured in, and the resulting products and locations are major assets to the company to this day. Even some of the art in the company’s lobby was created by a talented member of the staff during the same time period. Tapping into the full capabilities of your team is essential during challenging times.
Let Needs and Abilities Dictate Solutions
Watney was the ideal castaway because of his skill set. As a mechanical engineer and botanist, he was able to handle most life-threatening situations as they arose. While he was occasionally lucky, it was the luck of the well-prepared. He began generating a supplemental and sustainable food supply, and then began working toward developing a method to communicate with Earth to create a plan for a rescue.
To remain agile, you must know your needs, as well as your team’s ability to handle them. As a leader, you can’t afford the luxury of assuming anything will go smoothly. It’s essential to prepare for trends that threaten your business, and also to prepare yourself and your team to deal with them.
Communicate Plans for the Short and Long Term
Watney knew that while he had seemingly ample resources, they were finite. This led him to start planning both short-term and long-term. He recognized early that any rescue attempt would be years in the making, if at all— so he needed to plan ahead. Successfully planting a garden solved his immediate need for food, but developing communications with Earth was critical in coordinating a plan for getting home.
Communication with your team can never be underestimated. The executive has to plan, communicate, and coordinate to avoid wasted resources or disastrous mistakes. Agility means knowing your goals, short-term and long-term, and adjusting accordingly. Encourage input at planning meetings, but always remember who’s responsible for the decisions being made.
Know When to Accept Help
Watney can be humorously arrogant, making such claims as, “I am the greatest botanist on this planet.” Regardless, he never for a moment thinks or acts as though he can survive on his own without the valuable input of the team trying to save him. He knew that to get back home, he needed an unparalleled level of support from the international teams on Earth and in space.
When it’s time to leave the planet he is entirely in the hands of his team. He chooses to trust them without hesitation.
Whatever the next move for the company, no matter what challenge you’re facing— hopefully, your team is already trusting you. Great leaders will always make it a two‐way street by choosing to trust their team. This will go a long way to positioning your organization to proactively solve problems before they even come up.
While only fiction, “The Martian” has some excellent lessons for anyone interested in leading their business to a more agile model. Remaining calm, managing resources carefully, strategic planning, and trust are crucial skills for the executive. By pursuing agility, your organization can reduce potential threats, overcome challenges, and make positive changes to embrace a rich, if ever so uncertain, future.
Business agility requires a well-coordinated effort between people, processes, and tools.