Change is Thrilling! A Satellite Story

Change is Thrilling! A Satellite Story 150 150 Dr. Rachel MK Headley

The space industry is generally filled with exciting ideas, new technological advances, opportunities for creativity, and high risk associated with failure. From this perspective, change always seems thrilling.

However, change is often much more mundane and can feel threatening. What is the best way that teams can overcome stagnation and fear to experience the thrill of big changes?

My Landsat Team

Landsat is an earth-looking satellite mission whose satellites have taken images of Earth since 1972. It’s the basemap for Google Earth and is often used for comparing the before and after images of large natural disasters. (To get a sense of this epic mission, check out my talk at the 10,000+ attendee Esri User Conference.)

A few years ago, I was on the Landsat leadership team for most of a decade as the operational science lead. When I started with the team, you had to pay thousands of dollars per image, depending on the level of information you were receiving. The project brought in around $5 million in sales annually.

At the same time, the U.S. political leadership was pushing other countries to make their data available for free. We read the tea leaves, and it was pretty clear that we were going to have to change our revenue model. Not only that, we were going to have to reduce costs to make up for the $5M/year in sales. And, perhaps even more overwhelming, we would have to increase our production capability, as demand would skyrocket.

First, we had such serious pushback to this idea from our Project Manager that she quit. She was convinced that reducing our budget by $5M would result in a “death spiral.” She was so dedicated to the mission that she couldn’t stand to see it dismantled.

But, for those of us that remained, we still had to find a way.

We invited our technical team leaders into a closed-door meeting. And about scared them to death. We laid out the final goal – free data with a 100-fold increase in daily distribution.

At first, there was panic. A cost reduction of $5M meant laying off people. Good people. It meant increasing risk by having a single point of failure on most systems. Oh! And, at the same time we would need a rearchitecture of an operational production system (and as it turns out, we had to touch nearly every system from the archive to dissemination). Landsat is the gold standard for Earth imaging worldwide, so retaining scientific quality was paramount.

Our best asset initially was our new Project Manager, who had released her belief that the “current way is the only way” and began to look forward with curiosity. And, after the initial shock, the technical teams began to piece together a plan on just how we could make it happen.

While the god is in the details, the end of the story is that when the official order came down from Upper Management (i.e., Washington DC), we were ALREADY working on the components needed to make the transition to free data distribution. Because of preparation and the creativity of the engineers, we were able to make the transition to free data with ZERO issues visible to external partners.

To demonstrate of the success of the engineering effort, we went from distributing 25,000 images in a YEAR to more than 25,000 images in a DAY. While absorbing a $5M/year loss of income. Incredible. It still gives me goosebumps.

What Made Change Work

As I think back, I have identified five key components of that team that made that amazing turn possible.

  • Shared goals. We were a very tight team, and we were all fighting for the same thing. We were all experts in our own areas, pulling together toward a common goal.
  • Trust. We (leadership) didn’t dictate a solution, but we let the teams come up with the best options.
  • Vision. Our new project manager was able to see beyond what currently “was” to new possibilities.
  • Time. When we first approached the technical teams, we had yet to receive a mandate. That gave us the time to let the team brainstorm and hand wave, and consider all ideas: both terrible and great.
  • Flexibility. We, as the leadership team, knew that we would have to match the technical team’s creativity with our own. We carefully reduced budgets in some areas while increasing investments in others. We went after new grants and funding streams. We worked with partners and stakeholders on existing deadlines. We pushed back on other work to make room for the now-mission-critical releases. We protected the team from distraction as much as possible.

The Lesson

The Landsat team was the highest-performing team of which I have ever had the pleasure to be a part. The harder the problem, the more they ate it up. Not that they always enjoyed the changes, but they became experts at creative problem solving – and while they may have said, “We can’t!” initially once in awhile (as any change expert would expect them to do), they always ended up putting their heads together to come up with something surprising.

This amazing team was a direct result of the changes that were put upon it. The leadership team nurtured their collective creative genius by providing them with a new vision and then giving them time and room to come up with the best technical solutions.

So, here, even in a 40+-year-old, set-in-our-ways satellite mission, we were able to experience the delicious high-five sensation that often comes with much sexier missions.

Do not fear change. Change empowers, engages, and offers thrilling success that can rarely be found by stagnation.



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