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A decade of planning came down to seven tense minutes aimed at answering the age-old question: Is there life on Mars?
With that intriguing set up, John Grotzinger, PhD, pulled in a captive audience at PMI® Global Congress 2013 -- North America as he outlined the 2012 project that sent a car-sized robot, called Curiosity, to Mars.
First, the team had to figure out how to land a spacecraft safely on the red planet. Mars doesn't have enough atmosphere to slow a craft for landing. So the project team devised what it dubbed Sky Crane. After a parachute slowed the spacecraft considerably, rockets prevented it from crashing, and then Sky Crane lowered Curiosity by a rope. It was an innovative "out-of-the-box idea," but U.S. government sponsors agreed to give it the go-ahead.
Not all projects are quite so high profile, of course, but Dr. Grotzinger offered lessons learned for practitioners of projects large and small:
Bold questions lead to grand challenges. Create a grand vision that will both inspire innovation and motivate the team to the finish line. For Dr. Grotzinger's team, it was the quest for extraterrestrial life forms that led to Sky Crane.
Fly as you test, test as you fly. The team didn't fly anything it hadn't tested.
If at first you fail, don't try again. Instead, uncover the root cause of failure and fix it. The "darkest day of the mission," he said, occurred when the US$2.5 billion project was delayed by two years so the team could fine-tune the first-of-its-kind landing technology.
Early returns keep sponsors happy. Not far into Curiosity's exploration, it found evidence that water flowed across Mars almost 4 billion years ago -- an early indication of the project's breakthroughs to come.
Dr. Grotzinger closed with a case for innovative thinking and perseverance: "Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset," he said. The first time his team presented Sky Crane to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), they said it was crazy -- but after tweaking the idea, they eventually accepted the pitch.
The final congress keynote speaker, author and consultant Gina Schreck, covered a different type of uncharted territory, at least for some: social media. She broke people into two groups: digital natives, who feel at ease with the technology, and digital immigrants, who don't. But with Twitter, Facebook and other social tools officially an ingrained part of the business world, immigrants need to become natives fast.
Ms. Schreck offered several tips to stand out on the social scene:
Keep relevant. Track all the latest tools in the digital world and follow best practices. Twitter, for example, can be frivolous or vital: "Who you are connected with determines whether it's useful." She suggested finding good project management content through #PMI.
Stay thirsty for learning. Try learning about social from digital natives as you share your own experiences and knowledge.
Build your network -- before you need it. Don't wait until you're job hunting to put relevant content on your LinkedIn profile, delete outdated skills and endorse people.
Ms. Schreck urged digital immigrants to embrace social media and innovation for survival. "If you don't make today's you obsolete, someone else will," she said.
What are your tips for fostering innovation? Share with us in the Comments box below.
Couldn't make it to New Orleans? Read more from congress.