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What a $10 billion telescope can teach us about planning for failure…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #41 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? You should plan for failure!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? The most powerful space telescope ever built needed to deploy 344 mechanisms over 30 days, a million miles away from Earth. If even one part failed, the entire mission failed. So, the team behind the telescope planned for every possible scenario.

It’s Christmas Day, 2021. The most powerful—and expensive—telescope ever built just launched into space. Its mission? To find and take photos of the first galaxies, planets, and stars formed in the universe.

Meanwhile, on the ground, over 1,200 scientists and engineers held their breaths.

Why? Because the telescope’s 70-foot sunshield (the size of a tennis court!), which is necessary to keep the telescope from overheating, needed to unfurl once it entered space. 

Seems simple, right? Not quite.

The sunshield and its deployment had 344 “points of failure.” A point of failure is a fancy way of saying that, if one component fails (in this case, tiny pins and latches to help the sunshield open up to its full tennis court size), the whole mission fails.

So, for two years before launch, the JWST team developed “pre-formulated” contingency plans. They rehearsed what they would do if one of those latches or pins failed—from over one million miles away.

Fast forward one month to January 25th, 2022, and the JWST sunshield opened as planned, a million miles from Earth. And if it hadn’t? The team had already rehearsed thousands of ways to fix the problem.

So, the next time that you find yourself planning anything (whether a project at work or even a house party), remember the James Webb Space Telescope—and how its team had a plan B, plan C, and plan D for all 344 points of failure.

The James Webb Space Telescope (left) and one of its captured images

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

^My 4th grade teacher used to repeat this line every day in class. I was annoyed by it… but now I appreciate it.

It’s true:

Leading a meeting at work?

There’s a chance that someone goes on a tangent and you don’t get to the most important discussion.

If you don’t plan by (A) writing down the decisions you need to make, (B) putting the most important discussion early in the agenda, (C) keeping an eye on the time, and/or (D) having a go-to line to bring the discussion back on topic, you’ll be like the JWST—only drifting in space.

Planning a house party?

There’s a chance that your pizza order doesn’t show up on time.

If you don’t plan by (A) calling the restaurant directly to confirm that they received the order, (B) setting an earlier delivery time (or having someone pick up the food—and a backup person in case your go-to person is late themselves!), and/or (C) having backup food, you’ll be like the JWST—only out of battery in space.

Want a Gorick-style fill-in-the-blanks framework? Here goes:

(1) Fill in this blank: “I am currently trying to _______.”

  • E.g., “I’m launching a new mentorship program.”

(2) Fill in this blank: “To make this happen, I need _______, then _______, then _______…” (And list out every single step you need to take to make your project or goal happen!)

  • E.g., “I need employees to find out about the program through the all-staff email, read the description, fill out the form, check their email, fill out another form, attend one of two kickoffs…”

(3) Fill in this blank: “When it comes to _______, it’d be great if _______, but it’s also possible that _______, _______, and _______.” (And brainstorm all of the ways that something could go wrong!)

  • E.g., “When it comes to getting people to check their email, it’d be great if everyone checked their email right away, but it’s also possible that our email could end up in the spam folder or people don’t check their inboxes right away.”

(4) Fill in this blank: “To prevent _______, I will _______.” + “In case _______, I will _______.”

  • E.g., “To prevent the email from being blocked, I will research and avoid words that get picked up by spam folders.” + “In case people don’t check their emails, I will queue up a follow-up email to be sent 7 days after the first message to those who don’t respond to the form.”

We can’t anticipate every way that something might go wrong, but we can try our best to build a contingency plan as the James Webb Space Telescope team did. You worked hard to bring an idea to life. Give it the best chance possible at surviving—and succeeding!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I launched my book, The Unspoken Rules, I was worried that it would become a “tree that falls in the forest with no one hearing it.” So, I spent six months planning for launch day. It paid off!

Hope for the best but plan for the worst!


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