In the early 2000’s a US Space Ship blasted into space powered by Russian rockets. They were used because each Russian rocket was 10% more powerful than a US equivalent. Incredibly, these rockets were produced more than 20 years before the launch because they had been in storage since the 1980s when the Russian Space Program was closed. The implications are incredible. Russian rockets produced more than 20 years before were powerful than US produced rockets in the 2000’s.
This post examines a key reason behind each program’s innovative capabilities and explains their two different approaches for success.
The US Space Program
The US Space program mostly used what can be described as waterfall methodology. This means that they planned requirement, completed design, assessed feasibility, and then built the rockets. Waterfall methodology enabled them to budget projects, stick to deadlines, prioritize and discuss features without rework. This was extremely important as they were in a ‘race to space’ with a finite budget.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of using waterfall methodology is that few prototypes were created. As a result, the US only produced rockets after designs had been completed which caused only a few rockets to be created.
One advantage of this approach is that teams are more effective when testing is difficult to replicate. For instance, once the spaceship ascended to space, the US team were able to accurately forecast and predict behavior. This was enabled through lots of design time and helped them land safely on the moon (although with a few test flights). This philosophy holds true today when it is difficult to connect with customers. Teams that are able to design and predict issues can help alleviate problems before customers raise them.
The Russian Space Program
Alternatively, the Russian Space program used an agile approach. They were also working with similar constraints to the US such as a tight budget and intense timelines. However, their agile approach differed in the way they produced rockets. The key difference is that they prototyped and tested in parallel with design activities. They tested often. They test new ideas without fully designing them. They tested and were comfortable fixing rockets on the testing field.
As an example, the Russians would bring incomplete rockets to a launch site. They would then start testing and fix any issues as they go. This enabled them to bring rockets from design to reality quickly. They also tried features that US design teams consider too dangerous such as increasing the air intake system of each rocket.
The key difference is that the agile methodology focuses on building a prototype fast. Once a prototype has been created, teams can test it in realistic settings and quickly adapt it. This enables teams to have discussions based on an actual working object. Whereas in waterfall methodology, it takes a while to get to a prototype and most design conversations are on features that are in people’s imagination.
The benefits that the Russians found for agile methodology are:
- They created a rocket fast – prototypes were created with little design
- They created a rocket cheap – unnecessary features were not built
- They tried new features – areas that were deemed ‘theoretically implausible’ by other space development programs were tested
The philosophy of building a prototype quickly sounds simple. In reality, most organizations struggle because it is culturally difficult to pivot from a design and feasibility approach. It is also difficult to find skilled talent. However, this highlights one of the numerous examples of where prototype driven methodologies are advantageous.