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Why Successful Planning Requires ‘the Right Kind of Crazy’

Adaptive Live Steltzner

If you think you’ve got budget headaches, save an Excedrin for Adam Steltzner.

In 2012, Steltzner headed a team responsible for a $2.5 billion budget that funded a project 10 years in the making. The culmination of their efforts landed, quite literally, as the whole world watched. And it all happened 250 million miles from Earth.

On second thought, make that two Excedrins.

Steltzner headed NASA’s “Entry, Descent, and Landing” mission for the Curiosity Mars rover, managing a team that planned, engineered, and executed a delicate, nearly unbelievable landing after completing a nine-month spaceflight to the red planet. The white-knuckle landing sequence, in which an unmanned spacecraft gently lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface, is today known simply as “seven minutes of terror.”

Rock star rocket scientist
The mission was a success. The government’s $2.5 billion billion bet paid off. And Steltzner—a former aspiring rock star and college dropout—has since become something of a real rock star, attracting the kind of attention and accolades that were once reserved for NASA astronauts themselves. Today he is recognized as one of NASA’s most brilliant and insightful engineers, with his gifts as a master storyteller bringing him global acclaim, including the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Award in technology and one of GQ magazine’s Spacemen of the Year.

At Adaptive Live 2017, Steltzner will bring Adaptive Insights customers along on his remarkable journey—no spacesuits or rocket science degrees required. In his guest keynote, the award-winning author and TED Talk veteran will also view his unique experience through the lens of challenges that every finance team will recognize, from the essential need to collaborate across teams to recognizing that success often means planning for every contingency.

Steltzner spoke recently about his unlikely story, the challenge of placing a one-ton rover onto Mars with no margin for error, and the secret to dealing with uncertainty in a far-from-certain world. He even shed light on why, with so much riding on your success, “the right kind of crazy” can be a very good thing.

Collaborate or fail
For the Curiosity mission, Steltzner managed 40 engineers at NASA’s storied Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Budgeting and planning involved a much larger crowd. “The tendrils of our effort went out to a couple hundred folks throughout the nation,” he recalled. “We had to interact frequently with NASA HQ and the federal government on budgets.”

Collaboration was crucial, Steltzner said, simply because there was so much at stake. “We were responsible for the life and death moment of a $2.5 billion federal investment,” noted Steltzner, who said he understands that no matter the size of your budget, if you own it, then you also own how accurate and current it is. “There’s a lot of pressure.”

But collaborating effectively helps relieve that pressure. “I believe the quality of the collaboration is reflected in the quality of the product the team produces,” he said. “We focused on building a culture of collaboration based on mutual respect and sharing of ideas. It paid off.”

Don’t fear the reaper
At NASA, Steltzner and his team are in the business of inventing. (He’s still there, by the way, leading the first stage of the Mars 2020 mission that will dispatch another rover, though this one will return to Earth.) “All of our efforts involve prototypes,” he said, explaining that the car-sized Curiosity was five times heavier than previous rovers and required an entirely new landing system. “We’re not building the ninth-generation Ford Mustang, where we have the lessons of the eight previous generations to draw from. This is a unique spacecraft in a unique environment and a unique set of goals and challenges.”

The experience taught Steltzner that, despite the stakes, you can’t allow yourself to be immobilized by fear. “You need a small pinch of callous disregard to do your job,” he said. “Your goal has to be success, but you can’t be so frightened of failure that your decision-making is paralyzed or that you can’t see the right solution.”

The answer to “what now?” may well be “what if?”
Steltzner said fear also grips teams when questions are left unanswered. “When faced with an open question, we often rush to quickly provide an answer because we hate the open question. But if we give ourselves time to hold onto the doubt and consider the question—long enough to understand the profound essence of the open question—our decisions and findings are often stronger.”

So essential was this approach that Curiosity may not have landed without it. “The only way we arrived at the landing sequence for Curiosity was by fully exploring the question in front of us. We ran lots of what-if scenarios, lots of visualizations. Understanding the data, exploring the possible outcomes—this was the only way for us to understand our risk and to share that understanding with our stakeholders.”

Hammers, yes—green eyeshades, no
“Life and time ensure that nothing is constant but change,” said Steltzner. “Some tools don’t need to be constantly changing, but if the item that the tool is operating on is changing radically, the tool needs to change.”

For instance, some aspects of finance tools remain constant, while the growth of data and analytics has prompted others to evolve. “I still have hammers and screwdrivers in my shop because we still have nails and screws, even though we had those things in 1850. But you don’t find many finance folks working on paper spreadsheets with green eyeshades anymore, because they couldn’t possibly keep up with the demands of today’s business.”

The future will surprise you
At 20, Steltzner was an out-of-school musician driving home from a gig when he looked to the stars and noticed the constellation Orion wasn’t in the same place as it was hours earlier. Something in him had to find out why, and 15 years later, he had a Ph.D. in physics and an engineering job at NASA. “We can’t fit the future into our expectation of what we thought it would look like,” he said, citing a lesson he learned that night and later at NASA as assumptions made early on proved wrong—a situation virtually all finance teams know too well. “You have to see reality for what it is and respond accordingly.”

Go (slightly) crazy
Steltzner encourages teams to embrace “the right kind of crazy,” which reflects the thrust of his June 1 keynote and well-received 2016 book. “This isn’t about being cavalier or unnecessarily risky,” he explains. “It’s being creative and allowing our curiosity to find solutions. Harnessing curiosity is a slightly crazy way of achieving success.”

The right kind of crazy—exploring new ideas and challenging old ones—is one way to bring to market a product or a process no one’s seen before. “In our market,” he says, “we put it on a rocket and sent it to Mars.”

Take off on your own journey with Adam Steltzner by registering today for Adaptive Live 2017, May 30-June 2 in San Francisco, and reserve your seat to hear “The Right Kind of Crazy: A Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.”

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