Moonshot Leadership: Design Thinking in Action

In the early 1960s, the world was in the grip of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a fierce space race. Against this backdrop, President John F. Kennedy delivered a landmark speech in 1961, setting a bold ‘moonshot’ vision: “To land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade’s end.”

This audacious goal inspired and challenged the nation, driving new innovation and fostering an unprecedented spirit of collaboration.


Setting Aspirational Goals

Kennedy’s vision was a quintessential example of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) objectives delivered to support an ambitious aspiration.

He articulated a clear, measurable goal with a definitive timeline, challenging the nation to push the boundaries of technology and human capability. This strategic vision provided a powerful impetus for the Apollo program, aligning resources, talent, and efforts towards a common goal. This is the courageous and discerning strategic work that leaders must be equipped to drive. He was able to do it for an entire nation with intentional and unwavering focus.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Key Insight for Leaders: Are you and your leaders equipped to lead with such an unwavering commitment and posture that inspires others? Regardless of the scope of your role, budget or level of strategic goal setting – leaders must show up to make the hard choices and inspire and engender others towards collective progress. There is much to learn here.

Good Intent advisory works alongside your talent and teams helps promote such courage and commitment.

Human-Centered Design at The Heart of Innovation

When NASA sought to develop the Apollo spacesuit, it wasn’t a military contractor that rose to the challenge to truly solve the complexity, but Playtex, a company known for making bras and girdles up until that time. This unconventional choice underscores the value of human-centered design. Playtex’s seamstresses, primarily female, skilled in delicate craftsmanship, brought a unique perspective that ultimately led to the success of the spacesuit design by focusing on the needs and comfort of the astronauts balanced with strict and demanding quality and functionality requirements.

“The Playtex seamstresses’ experience in making bras and girdles—garments that must fit the body closely and flexibly—proved to be a perfect fit for making spacesuits that had to allow astronauts to move freely and stay safe in the harsh environment of space.” – Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo; MIT Press

Key Insight for Leaders: Apply human-centered design principles in your organization. Start with a deep understanding of the needs and experiences of your end-users and iteratively develop solutions that address those needs effectively.


Playtex’s Advantage and Winning Strategy

Playtex entered the competition against established military contractors like Hamilton Standard and B.F. Goodrich. Their advantage lay in their expertise in creating flexible, form-fitting garments. The team, led by engineer Hamilton “Ham” Sundstrand and seamstress Eleanor Foraker, crafted a spacesuit that combined flexibility with durability, allowing for human-centered design that prioritized the astronaut’s comfort and mobility.

Playtex’s innovative design involved layering techniques used in undergarments, which provided the necessary protection and mobility. Their spacesuit was chosen after rigorous testing, demonstrating superior performance in both functionality and comfort.

Key Insight for Leaders: Recognize and leverage unique competencies within your team. Sometimes, the most effective solutions come from applying existing skills and knowledge in new and novel ways.

Leadership lessons like this provide a compelling parallel narrative and are one of the strategies we use to educate and inspire growth as Good Intent advisors. Leadership modeling and parallel storytelling is a proven way to teach specific values and this is an area of conversation we can have with you or your talent


Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The Apollo spacesuit, with its 21 layers of intricate design, was the result of seamless collaboration between engineers, designers, and craftspeople. This interdisciplinary approach was implemented in a way to expeditiously implement and test new features in a race to win the contract. This is a testament to the power of combining expertise from various fields in the appropriate manner for the task and team to solve complex problems.


Key Insight for Leaders: Break down silos within your organization. Promote cross-functional teams to leverage the full spectrum of talent and knowledge available. Think on the appropriate models or frameworks to help the teams best organize the work, to understand the customer and stay aligned to the collective goals. Respect the individual and team contributions along the way.


Resilience and Adaptability

The journey to creating the Apollo spacesuit was fraught with challenges. From intense competition to stringent testing requirements, the team had to continuously adapt and improve their designs. This resilience was crucial to their eventual success.

Key Insight for Leaders: Cultivate a resilient mindset within your team. To demonstrate resilience should not feel like an arduous task all the time. This is a leading factor to change fatigue and burnout. Emphasize and create space to embrace the importance of learning from setbacks, pushing forward a team towards a goal and continuously iterating on solutions. Back it by Kennedy level leadership that was exhibited in this case.


Attention to Detail

Every stitch and layer of the Apollo spacesuit was meticulously crafted to ensure the safety and mobility of astronauts. This level of detail was non-negotiable, highlighting the critical importance of precision in high-stakes environments.

Key Insight for Leaders: Instill a culture of excellence where attention to detail is paramount. Recognize and reward meticulous work that contributes to the overall quality and success of projects. To help teams in this area a key moment is when they break down their work. Consider, what does “quality” mean and how do you help them install a culture and working processes that enable a team to communicate, own and feel pride in their end to end quality.  This is why Good Intent has a strong focus on the hiring and onboarding process in our advisory to emergent and top leaders. The values you communicate, demonstrate and cascade – impact all behaviors one way or another of your team.


Creative Problem-Solving

The Apollo spacesuit was a product of creative problem-solving. Faced with unprecedented requirements, the team had to think outside the box, blending fashion and technology in ways never before imagined.

Key Insight for Leaders: Encourage creative thinking and problem-solving within your team. Provide an environment where unconventional ideas can be explored and tested. This can happen in many ways from the mode in which you partner with them to work to even the ways in which you conduct your meetings with them. Create safe spaces for your team to observe others that engender positive behavior in this way and build upon it. The simplest first step is using prompting questions in group and team settings. Good Intent brings this approach and vernacular forward in leaders in coaching sessions.


Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design

The creation of the Apollo spacesuit is a prime example of design thinking and human-centered design. The team focused on the end-users—astronauts—ensuring the suit was not only functional but also comfortable and user-friendly.

Key Insight for Leaders: Apply design thinking principles in your organization. Start with a deep understanding of the needs and experiences of your end-users and iteratively develop solutions that address those needs effectively. Try to avoid being a leader that leads this with the process and buzzword workshop mindset. Help others see that this is a capability deeply within top talent and that human centered design principles tease out the best work for the right creative opportunities. Good Intent can help leaders articulate the importance of when to diverge and converge using Human Centered principles. Our network partners at the LUMA Institute are a good resource as well. Consider how you partner internally with groups such as HR and L&D along the way so continued leadership behaviors and skills are thoughtfully communications, trained and most importantly – observed.


In Closing

The story of the Apollo spacesuit is a powerful narrative that leaders can use to inspire and motivate their teams. By embracing interdisciplinary collaboration, resilience, attention to detail, creative problem-solving, and human-centered design, organizations can achieve extraordinary results. Just as Playtex’s unlikely victory led to one of the most iconic achievements in history, so too can your team reach new heights by adopting these principles.

By reflecting on the lessons from the Apollo and Kennedy’s visionary leadership, leaders can create a more innovative, resilient, and high-performing organization. Let this story be a reminder that greatness often comes from the most unexpected places and bold visions.

Good Intent wants all your leaders to be ready for their moonshot moment. Our practice can help them be prepared by creating space to discuss emerging concepts and leadership before or during their moonshot.

The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space…

…We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.