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Lost in Space

No one knows what happened to the Mars Climate Orbiter.

The craft launched in 1998 on a mission to Mars. It was intended to orbit the planet, gathering weather data and searching for signs of water. But a language barrier doomed the mission to fail before the orbiter even left the stratosphere.

You see, NASA uses metric measurements in its flight management software. 

Its partner, Lockheed Martin, built the orbiter to use imperial measurements.

Data that was expected to be delivered in newton seconds was actually delivered in pound-force seconds, creating small discrepancies in flight calculations that compounded along the journey.

When the orbiter approached Mars 49 seconds early, the NASA team knew there was a problem. Then, the craft passed behind the Red Planet and all communication was lost. 

The orbiter was off course, never to be heard from again. 

Having a shared language is vital for successful innovation, be it a space mission on Mars or a transformation initiative inside a bank.

In banking, it is easy to take for granted that the words we use will be interpreted as intended.

That's because the language of banking is well-defined — literally defined, in many cases, through policy and procedure. 

But when we step into the world of innovation, things aren't so well defined, and they aren't familiar.

That's why it's so important for leaders to develop a shared innovation language and spread it throughout the bank. 

Last fall, one member told me that changing the way his team communicated about innovation was beginning to change the way they worked. The bank had recently completed FIRE training, and the shared language it gave them was creating visible cultural shifts.

It gave his executives the tools they needed to chart a course for the future, and everyone else the confidence they needed to contribute to the conversation. Having a common nomenclature meant everyone was on the same flight path.

We still don’t know what happened to the Mars Climate Orbiter. 

The $125 million probe either got too close to the surface of Mars and went down in flames, or it’s still orbiting aimlessly around the sun today.

I like to imagine it’s still out there, lost in space. A monument to the miscommunications at the root of so many failed missions. 

You can spend millions building a craft. But if your team doesn't have a common language to man it, things will go off course quickly — if they ever launch at all.

*Amber Buker, Director of Insights

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