As many of my friends and colleagues have known forever, my favorite human achievement is the NASA moon landing.
We managed to send people into outer space and land people on the Moon and bring them back safely in 1969! — before HP had even invented the pocket calculator. I am mindful to take a break even to this day to go outside when there is a Full Moon. It reminds me of what’s possible and how great we can be. It underscores that Hot Teams can overpower even the hardest of problems and outperform comparable teams by sometimes as much as 100x.
Where did I first hear the term Hot Teams? What does it have to do with the Moon Landing? And what does it have to do with building legendary technology products?
I first heard about it from my father, Mike Maples Sr, who ran applications software at Microsoft and Windows from 1988–1995. The year was 1988. Lotus was still ahead in spreadsheets. WordPerfect was ahead in word processing. Ashton-Tate was ahead in databases. The first Microsoft Office “bundle” would not even ship for another 2 years. Back in those days, I was a college student and I asked him “How can Microsoft come from behind in all of those categories?” That’s when he told me a fun story…
He explained to me that after NASA landed on the moon, some people decided to study how they accomplished something so unbelievable. They noticed that some teams had managed to be orders of magnitude more productive than normal. The term they used to describe these groups was “Hot Teams.”
In one example, a big antenna had to be built on the top of a mountain. There were no roads leading to it so the team tasked to make it happen couldn’t even get to the base of it, much less the top.
One person on the team said, “We should let our bosses know that we have encountered a roadblock that threatens the schedule.” But the rest of the team disagreed: “No…if we do that, it will just slow us down.” For quite some time the team brainstormed how they would develop a solution to what seemed to be an impossible problem.
One person asked, “Who has the biggest helicopter in the entire world?” They did some research and concluded it was the US Navy. When they first called the Navy, the response was “No way, NASA. These are our helicopters.” To that, the NASA team replied “President Kennedy promised the country that we would land on the Moon and come back safe in 1969. If we do not get that antenna on top of that mountain — and fast — we are going to fail to meet the deadline.”
The US Navy responded, “How many do you need?”
Using the Navy’s helicopters, the team flew the antenna parts to the top of the mountain and assembled it at the top. How’s that for McGyvering a solution?
The NASA Moon Landing was thousands of examples of that.
Teams that were self-managing; That didn’t make excuses when they encountered setbacks; That would never dream of punking out and quitting;
Teams for whom failure was not an option.
What does this mean for startups?
First — if you want your team to be a Hot Team, there must be two things ever-present. Everyone on the team must think “the goal is super important” and “you can make it happen.” In fact, the team must know that it will not happen unless they work together to kick ass and make it happen. There is no backstop and no place to hide.
Mission Clarity and a massively meaningful goal are what cause people to join your no-name startup when they could get more money and prestige by joining Google or Facebook. Mission Clarity is what causes the best people in your field to want to work together at your company and nowhere else. And Mission Clarity provides the fuel for a great team to persevere through all of the impossible circumstances and near-death experiences that any startup encounters.
People often forget that while NASA was taking baby steps toward this huge goal in the 1960s, the Soviets were grabbing headlines constantly for their achievements that appeared better in the short-term but were less strategic. Imagine the stress and pressure the exec teams at NASA must have felt every time the Soviets got headlines for launching another rocket or getting another headline win while they had nothing visible to show yet. But they stuck to their guns because they had an awesome goal with absolute mission clarity. They had a commitment to succeed no matter what. They knew that they would get the last word by landing on the Moon and dropping the mic.
Second — If you want a Hot Team, it requires a certain management style of empowerment... Mike Sr explained to me when he ran products at Microsoft in their earlier years, he felt it was OK for “management” to pick the features or the ship date, but never both. For example, the management team could say “This is a consumer product that must ship by Christmas,” but then they would have to let the product team decide on its own what would be delivered by that date. Conversely, the management team might decide “We need this critical mass of features to have a complete enough product,” but then they would need to let the product team be empowered to determine the date.
When you think about it, lots of startup founding teams get this wrong when they grow their teams. They want to determine the features and the date, just like they did in the zero-to-one phase when there were only founders and no “employees.” It makes intuitive sense, but it’s the wrong intuition. Hot teams run hot because they are empowered to get around obstacles on their own. They are self-directed and committed to each other to win. When management makes all of the trade-offs and the team encounters an obstacle, too often the team says “Well…that’s the best we could do. Management had a bunch of crazy unrealistic requirements and deadlines.” Just the fact that these discussions happen at all saps productivity and cuts energy levels dramatically. Hot Teams run at high RPMs and never lose energy.
When a Hot Team is empowered and something unexpected goes wrong (which it always will,) the team will be more likely to say “Wait a minute. management told us we have to ship by Christmas….But we are fully empowered to figure out the critical mass of features and how to work around this unexpected problem. Let’s get on it!” Or “We picked the date for this to ship. This setback is a bummer, but you can’t blame the management. We were the ones who got surprised by the unexpected wrinkle we didn’t see coming. We better find a way around this and be better and smarter going forward.”
Picking the right goal
Which gets back to the picking of the goal. Picking the right goal is supremely important for founders to get right at all phases of a startup’s growth. Entrepreneurs who can pick the right goals as the product, company, and category are built are extraordinarily rare and valuable. Mastering the balance between being in the details, empowering the team, and selecting big goals that everyone understands and buys into is vital to creating a ThunderLizard company. As it relates to the Moon Landing, here is a good example set by JFK:
“The US should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
— President John F Kennedy
Think about your startup:
Are you gathering all the inspiration you can from the original Hot Teams of fifty years ago? The people who landed on the friggin’ Moon? Does your team feel that their goal is super important and only they can make it happen?
Almost every startup I’ve encountered would claim it has a hot team. But only a tiny fraction really do.
Creating an ethos of Hot Teams is one of the greatest long term sources of Company Power you can create as a Founder.
How lucky we are that the idea of Hot Teams is always around us if we choose to notice. We don’t have to just celebrate the 50th anniversary. We can celebrate it every night when we look at the stars. We can remind ourselves always that greatness is a decision.
Thanks to Steven Sinofsky and Mike Maples, Sr. for their input on this.