India’s Mars Orbiter Mission probe, informally called the Mangalyaan, cost $75 million to create and launch into space back on November 5, 2013. By comparison, NASA’s MAVEN probe, also headed to Mars, cost $671 million. After reading an excellent article by Saritha Rai for The New York Times, I decided to explore what project management lessons might be gathered from India’s team to account for being able to launch a probe for roughly 11% the cost of a probe designed by a more seasoned team.
Limitations Are Opportunities
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) faced an uphill battle from the start. Due to the location and orbit of Mars, the Indian team only had 18 months to design and execute the mission. This caused them to hyper-focus their attention and micromanage their time, scheduling tasks literally hour by hour to ensure time tables were met. And since both budget and time were in short supply, the team could not afford to go through multiple iterations of the probe. They only ever built with one model in mind—the final model. To keep the cost down ever further, they kept an eye open for old technology that could be adapted for their current purpose. Why spend more money for something you already have?
The takeaway here is that, no matter how vast the project, a combination of confidence and ingenuity can get the job done—and get the job done great. If we can put a probe into space in 18 months, surely you can get that unwieldy project up and running for your customer by the end of the month. If you believe a project is too complex to finish fast or cheaply, then your attitude will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need to have faith in the abilities of your team and yourself, and then you need to back that faith up with an airtight game plan and the sweat of your brow. Cut every corner you can, but in the smartest possible way.
The Power of Perspective
To quote Rai, “So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters.” Rai later cites K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO, who says, “It is a question of philosophy, and each country has its own. The Russians, for example, believe in putting large amounts of time and resources into testing so that the systems are robust.”
If we shrink the scope down a little, and replace “country” with something like “PMO,” we can see that project plans work out best when they are rooted in an ideology. Does your PMO have a few guiding tenets to lead the way? Do you have your own personal philosophy about what makes a project succeed? Whatever they may be, you need to follow your convictions as much as possible to design projects in a way that makes the most sense to you.
So Maybe It’s Not a Complete Miracle
If you pull back the curtain, then yes, some factors of the Mangalyaan’s meager price tag were not all related to brilliant planning. ISRO used a young Indian team who all worked for a slight fraction of what NASA employees make, and like many dedicated teams, the Indians would at times work through weekends without being paid overtime. But if nothing else, it serves to heighten just how dedicated the team was to send a probe to Mars. Enthusiasm just might be the most powerful indicator of all of whether or not a project will succeed.
Many factors played into ISRO being able to put a probe in space so fast and for so cheap. Some of them were extraordinary, and some of them were just ordinary. But the lessons for project managers are very digestible. You need to convince yourself and your team that any job of any size can be knocked out of the park with proper planning. You need to back up your plans with an ideology that rings true with you. And then you just need to remember to be enthusiastic about doing the actual work. Maybe your current project is not quite as big as sending a probe to Mars, but to your customer, who knows? Maybe you have their whole world in your hands.