The release of the Bollywood film Mission Mangal on 15 August, was well-timed. Yes, India was celebrating its Independence Day. It was also the 50th anniversary of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). In the cinema hall where I saw the film in Mumbai, people were actually singing the national anthem and youth kept cheering and shouting patriotic slogans during the high moments of the film (rocket launching, satellite responding after a communications blackout etc.) Well, I don’t intend to write a review of the film here, because by now, plenty have been written. But I do want to draw some parallels with values in the film and corporate culture.
Here are 6 lessons businesses can learn from the film.
1. It’s about timing. (Be patient.)
The rocket was ready for launch, and then the weather played spoil sport. There were thunderstorms and lightning. The launch had to wait for the weather to clear up. And that waiting period extended from July to November. The team was getting impatient, as Mars was drifting further away from the earth. That meant more fuel to get to the red planet. More fuel means more weight. And suddenly the weather cleared, and they were ready for launch.
It’s the same in business. You have to wait for the right time and the big opportunity. Launch a product to early and it will fail, because the ecosystem (and consumers) are not ready for it. Apple and Microsoft failed when they launched their first versions of the tablet, long before the iPad was invented.
Observe trends, look for opportunities. Is the ecosystem ready for your business idea and product? Does it solve a big problem?
2. Never say ‘Impossible’. (It can be done.)
At one point in the film the mission director Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar), asked a scientist named Ekta Gandhi (Sonakshi Sinha), to come up with a plan to reduce the fuel payload on the satellite. She blurted out “Impossible!” in frustration. The mission director was furious and would not accept that. Ekta goes back to her room and is deep in thought when she gets an idea from a printed pattern on a cushion. That home idea solved the problem of fuel payload. And there are other examples of home science and simple everyday ideas being applied to solve complex scientific problems, in the film’s story.
You have to think “out of the box” as they say. If you run into a wall and it seems impossible, then try another approach. Think unconventionally. Think different. You will get the solution.
3. You need a good Team (Recognise talent in women employees.)
In the film, the Mars project at ISRO (called Mars Orbiter Mission or MOM) received a team of junior scientists (with the exception of one, who was into his retirement). This was done intentionally. (I won’t spoil that with an explanation. Watch the film).
But Rakesh, the mission director and project director Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) did not lose hope. They found ways to motivate the team by asking them about their dreams, and encouraging them to make their dreams come true–through the MOM mission. Rakesh goes out of his way to motivate them, taking them out for a drink, speaking to them about their families, offering to help with their daily challenges, etc. And that’s a fine example of leadership.
The ISRO missions today have women scientists and engineers working on the Mars and Chandrayaan missions. In fact, this film shows five women scientists who made significant contributions to the Mars mission. There’s a resemblance to the Hollywood film Hidden Figures. That film plays tribute to three black women at NASA with exceptional skills in mathematics and logic, who made the Apollo missions successful in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The point is, women have certain abilities and think differently from men. Recognise those special abilities and give women a chance. Make them project leaders if you must.
4. Be first. (Do not be a follower.)
In the film, there are repeated references–through simulated TV news broadcasts–to China and the U.S. being ahead in the space race and how India should get to Mars before China. In fact Rakesh also mentions that it feels good to be the first, and not copy others. In the business world that’s called first mover advantage.
Being the first proves that you are an innovator or a genius who has done something unprecedented. When you try to achieve something that has never been done before, there is no precedent to look for inspiration. You have to be original in your ideas. It’s also an expensive route as you fail several times and spend a lot of time and money experimenting. But if you do succeed, and if you are the first, you’ll experience a tremendous sense of achievement, exhilaration, and pride. How do you think Tenzing Sherpa and Edmund Hillary felt on the summit of Everest? How did Neil Armstrong feel when he took his first steps on the moon?
So be the first, and be original.
5. It can be done at a lower cost.
In Mission Mangal, we see ISRO directors asking the government for funds. The multi-core mission cost (I can’t recollect the figure mentioned in the film) raises many eyebrows, and at one point the mission is called off because of the huge project cost. But the team finds away, again through out of box thinking.
I real life, the total cost of India’s Mars mission was approximately ₹450 Crore (US$73 million), making it the least-expensive Mars mission to date.
ISRO’s missions cost much less than what NASA and the EU’s Ariane space missions spend. Even private space enterprises like SpaceX and Blue Origin have bigger budgets than ISRO.
But how does ISRO do it? And what can corporates learn here?
I want to set aside the discussion on labour arbitrage. Yes, the salaries are much lower in India. But there are other ways to save cost. Like using indigenous manufacturing techniques and locally sourced raw materials. Of course, some technological know-how must be sourced from other countries. Why reinvent the wheel and spend millions on R&D? But for other things, consider local sourcing. You need to innovate and come up with your own solutions rather than import (and waste precious forex).
6. It’s OK to fail. (We learn from experiments.)
NASA failed several times before it was successful with the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Rockets exploded, experiments went horribly wrong, and many lives were lost. But NASA moved forward with gumption and determination, continuously researching until it achieved perfection. Today, you see that kind of determination at SpaceX. Lots of Falcon rockets exploded and plunged into the ocean before they finally got it right. You’ll see a mission is aborted and the self-destruction of a rocket in Mission Mangal.
More than 90 percent of startups fail. But failure teaches you a lot of things. As our school teachers told us, “Failure is a stepping stone to success.”
Entrepreneurs fail. Athletes fail. Missions fail. But the resilient ones get up and try again, till they succeed.
So yes, it is OK to fail. Don’t be ashamed of failure.