How Your Organization Communicates Without Words; Lessons from SpaceX Mission Control

Watching the coverage of SpaceX's first mission to the International Space Station on NASA TV turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. One thing that really surprised me was the comparison between NASA's ISS Flight Control Room in Houston and SpaceX's mission control at their Hawthorne, Florida facility.

SpaceX's mission control is noteworthy for its minimalist, almost spartan style based on basic tables you might pick up at IKEA and simple computer monitors. Almost nothing else is visible. In comparison NASA's flight control room looks unmistakably luxurious and extravagant. In all fairness the NASA facility was probably first built in the age of paper documents and CRT displays, so this look is probably a legacy. But intentional or not the comparison sends a clear message about SpaceX.

Most organizations have a communications department that, with some help from corporate legal, will evaluate meticulously every word -- and punctuation mark -- that the organization sends to outsiders. Yet at the same time many are not so careful with these wordless messages that they are transmitting in parallel.  In the SpaceX case the unspoken message of the mission control images fits perfectly with the company's messages about economy and cost effectiveness.

Not everyone is so careful or lucky. Without naming any names, there are others who preach austerity with no visible signs of anything resembling practice. In the same way there are companies that boast about their openness while the design of their offices suggests the opposite. There are also people who stress their desire to delight customers, while at the same time keeping them at a safe distance.

Unwritten and unspoken messages are very powerful and I am sure that the style of the SpaceX facility will remain in people's minds and will inspire other companies to deliberately emulate it. But others would be better advised to take a look at the hidden messages that their businesses are sending unwittingly and watch especially for the message that are out of tune with the organizations values.


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