October 25, 2014, 12:00 AM IST Kiran Karnik
The outstanding success of Isro’s mission to Mars has deservedly won wide acclaim, both in the country and abroad. Those with deeper knowledge of the challenges and complexities of the effort are even more appreciative of the achievement. The success of programmes like MoM and Chandrayaan (Isro’s Moon mission) generates national pride and widespread praise. However, there are ongoing activities (launch of a navigation satellite a few days ago) in technology development and applications which form the bedrock of the organisation’s achievements.
It is in this context that it is worth reflecting on the basic factors that make Isro so successful. There are certainly lessons here not only for government organisations, but also the private sector.
Success has no guaranteed magic formula but one can seek to glean some major contributory factors. Along these lines, a summarised and simplified Isro recipe can be codified in the acronym ABCD. First, A is for autonomy. While operating within the framework of government rules (Isro is part of department of space similar to any other in government), the Space Commission is a fully empowered body. It has the authority to make all financial and administrative decisions, barring those that are exceptional or of very high financial value. These go to the prime minister. This autonomy coupled with the fact that the PM is the minister of space, ensures there is no interference from politicians or other vested interests.
This structure also helps in keeping out the bureaucracy (the B of the mantra). Isro is managed by professionals, with all functional decisions being made by them. The few bureaucrats within Isro and department of space play an important, but supportive and service role, as opposed to a control function. The fact that the secretary is a space professional is an important element of this.
C is for capital: not of the financial kind, but of the country. It can hardly be a coincidence that the only two government departments which are not headquartered in Delhi (space and atomic energy) are probably the best performing ones by almost any criteria. Arguably, this may also account for the enviable reputation of RBI and SEBI. Being far from politicking, bureaucratic turf battles and power-and-money culture of Delhi clearly helps.
Collaboration is another key element of Isro’s success. Obviously, internal collaboration among various groups and centres within Isro is essential in developing any complex system or programme. The culture of collaboration is nurtured and ensured by structural arrangements, including a matrix management structure. This deepens domain expertise by ensuring that individuals work in and are guided by senior experts in their specialised area.
At the same time, individuals are also accountable to a project manager/director who integrates work across different domains to deliver a project. Equally special is the external collaboration with other government entities (especially for programmes of applications of space technology) and with industry. The long-standing and extremely fruitful interface with corporates — many of which are partners, rather than mere vendors — bodes well for commercial exploitation of India’s space capabilities.
The last alphabet of the acronym is for democracy. Its most valuable form in ISRO’s context is the openness and freedom of speech that is particularly manifest during design reviews, where everyone is equal and young junior engineers are free (and actually encouraged) to argue with their seniors and pick holes in their work.
In a field where there are so many unknowns, with high risk and failure rates globally, the comparatively more successful Isro programme undoubtedly owes a great deal to its rigorous and frank design reviews. They demonstrate the value of scientific temper, where knowledge trumps hierarchy; where not all questions have answers, but all answers can be questioned.
D is also for discussion, dialogue and dedication: all elements of Isro’s work culture.
This somewhat simplistic explanation of Isro’s success could be elaborated, contextualised and added to. For example, vision, motivation and cutting-edge work which provide intellectual challenge can be cited as other key factors. Yet, ABCD may be a formula that other government departments and corporates may well want to emulate.