Interstellar: Space Travel Can Make Us Better Strategic Communicators (and Leaders)

October 13, 2016

[20th century fox]
[20th century fox]

Space travel is one of the most resource-constrained environments imaginable. Any increase in mass requires an increase in energy required for propulsion. However, there is limited room available for fuel and cargo.

Scientists developing theories and plans for space travel use a principle called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). ISRU is an amazing exercise in creative thinking and problem-solving.

Many people have left personal toiletries at home when traveling and used the products provided in hotels. Taking your own toiletries requires a sacrifice of cargo space in your suitcase, increased expended energy in airport security or some other combination of costs. Visualizing and analyzing the resources available at your destination is a simplified version of ISRU.

Strategic communicators are often faced with constrained resources. Whether it is the budget, timeline or team size, there always seem to be resource obstacles between you and your objectives.

NASA has a very challenging problem set. Teams are researching everything from water and oxygen creation to construction materials that can be found in various spots around our solar system. The teams must look at every object for hidden resource possibilities and explore every possible combination of objects, or the base components of the objects, to find solutions most people would not notice.

NASA’s ISRU projects are the epitome of collaborative systems thinking and can teach us all something about problem-solving. Most of your teams will not be required to develop a self-sustaining way to operate on another planet, but you do need to accomplish the objectives of your organization.

As Mark Watney, Matt Damon’s character in the film “The Martian,” put it, sometimes you just have to “science the [crap] out of” a problem.

Brainstorming sessions can uncover resources previously overlooked. Encouraging crazy ideas during discussions can illuminate creative ways to use those resources. The pride and camaraderie developed from those “aha” moments is vital to team success. Here are the pillars to successful collaboration:

1. Keep it light.

Humor can often be misinterpreted as not taking a situation seriously, but that is not always the case. Adding levity can spark creativity, foster inclusion and filter bad ideas. For example, always ask yourself, what would a writer on “Saturday Night Live” or “The Daily Show” think about this idea?

2. Be inclusive.

Obviously, collaboration requires a group, but let your own creativity begin with building the team. Think about colleagues outside of your team or organization who can disrupt the echo chamber and offer a different perspective.

3. Develop the skills early.

Don’t wait until the make-or-break point to challenge your team. The skills in successful collaboration on both the individual and team levels are developed through practice. You can develop your own creative skills by designing challenges that are not only more authentic than the typical team-building events, but better suited to the personalities of your team as well.

4. Recognize the depth of awareness.

Mentoring your team members will benefit your organization in more ways than just better brainstorming sessions. By providing access to the articles and books you read, not only are you developing them professionally, but you are providing insight into the way you think as well. This will develop a shared understanding of team objectives and direction. Also, step outside the industry publications and find articles and subjects that expose you to different concepts and ways of thinking.

Paying for the latest software or tools is not inherently bad, but it can lead to atrophy of the creative-thinking muscles. The tools may distract your team from the fundamental elements of our profession. All of the latest data analytics and digital media are useless if your message does not resonate with your audience.

Challenge your team to break an upcoming event down into the core components and look for opportunities at each node. Think deeply about ways to connect with influencers who could support and further your message. There may be multilateral partnerships with other organizations that are just as complex as the covalent bonds being studied by NASA, but which are just as pioneering as the oxygen-creating device NASA developed called MOXIE.

Leaders must encourage the thinking that leads to ISRU-type solutions. Recognition for achievements and removal of impediments to the process are fundamental. Recognition and promotion of the process itself are just as important.

Most important, however, is the acceptance of failure. Failure is the highest probable outcome with most experiments, but it is also an amazing personal and organizational learning tool. Approaching the strategic communications planning process like the scientific method could not only result in higher-quality results but a deeper understanding of the campaign for the members of the team. This greater understanding will allow the team to adjust the plan more reflexively when the execution begins to look like Apollo 13.

Innovation is driven by necessity. Forcing your team to “science the [crap]” out of a challenge may actually increase your team’s effectiveness. Even if an acceptable solution is not discovered and the checkbook is dusted off, the process will invigorate your team and bring them closer together.

Jackson McGehee

Jackson McGehee is on the strategic communications team at Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. He is also a candidate in American University’s strategic communications master’s program. Email: Twitter: @JRMcGeheethe3rd. Website:


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