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What Social Media Managers can learn from NASA

Last weekend, in an attempt to try and stay out of the rain, I re-watched Apollo 13. While watching Tom Hanks and company orbit the moon and narrowly escape impending doom it donned on me: there’s a lot in common between leaders wanting to increase collaboration and how NASA participated in the space race.

The space race of the 1960s was a venture into the great unknown. Similarly, because social media is still new to many organizations, it too is viewed by most as the great unknown. If you step back and look at the two, there is a lot in common. You can easily draw a parallel between between the two. Essentially, in both endeavors we are venturing out into the unknown. Luckily, we don’t have to go it totally alone. Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald in their Harvard Business Review article, Managers Need to Up Their Game with Social Media identify three elements that managers should focus on when trying to get more out of their social media efforts.


Anything you undertake, anything you change, either initiative or, program will fail if those involved do not understand the project’s purpose. Effectively explaining why you are driving these programs and the expected long term results from them are powerful ways to help gain support. All those famous presidential speeches where Kennedy explained the strategic importance of the “high ground” is a great example of attempting to communicate the purpose of going to the moon. Without those public addresses, I’m sure people would have been scratching their heads wondering why so much money was going to something they didn’t really understand. Communication sounds simple and easy. However, it’s often overlooked because of its simplicity. Don’t assume that everyone understands why they are being asked to do something. Instead, over communicate and you’ll be much happier with the results.


According to Bradley and McDonald, Managers need to not only talk the talk, but actually get their hands dirty. Not all that surprising, but still more difficult than said. If you look at most great initiatives they all involve leading by example. The NASA scientists, who spoke about how they planned on getting to the moon, were the same guys helping design and construct the means to get there. Leading by example, is the best way to rally the troops and show that this is a top priority and not something that is only paid lip service. Bradley and McDonald state “Participation is critical to community engagement and creativity, especially when pursuing a meaningful purpose.”


While managers should become advocates for their programs, it’s also important to measure your programs and know if it makes sense to keep it going. “Purpose requires the manager/sponsor to step outside the community and assess its progress toward achieving its overall goals and objectives.” It’s important for managers/sponsors to help bridge the gap between the initiative and corporate management. “Without a focus on performance, community-based ideas often stay within the community.” To help, managers need to be ambassadors and help bring these ideas from the community to the rest of the company. There was a reason why NASA eventually ended the Apollo program. They analyzed the results, and determined that it wasn’t worth the cost. It’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of what your initial goals were if you fail to focus on performance.

While Bradley and McDonald state that Participation, Purpose, and Performance are the three essential cornerstones of successful collaboration management, it really boils down to upper management management. As Bradley and McDonald say, “it takes a particular type of manager and management team to foster the type of mass collaboration that taps into the collective genius of your customers and employees.”

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