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Early one morning, I logged into a soundcheck for a virtual panel discussion. The A.V. folks asked us to answer the question, “What did you eat for breakfast?” as a means of testing the connection. After hearing responses ranging from toast, eggs, yogurt, cereal, etc., it was my turn. I paused briefly and answered: “In my company, I tell my team to wake up every morning and drink rocket fuel for breakfast.” Although the meaning seems obvious for a startup company, everyone was curious to learn more.
When you are part of a science and technology company, the pace of change is rapid. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly one maps the course of the week, the results of a single test from the lab can throw you off your trajectory and force you to chart a new course on the fly.
The ultimate decision-making criteria in our startup boils down to three important things: Is this what the customer wants? Can we afford it? And does it scale? If we can answer “yes” to all of these, then we proceed; if we can’t, then we change course.
This is not an easy environment to work in. It can be incredibly discouraging. We have to move as fast as we can — seemingly powered by booster rockets — but also have the capacity to stop, turn on the thrusters and change direction. The secret to successfully maneuvering in this environment is to ensure that the team is prepared, both physically and mentally.
Physically, we have to build ranges of possibilities and expectations into our technology design and performance. This way, iterative changes can be done on the fly, by turning a dial rather than redesigning entire sections. It takes skill and creativity to choose these performance ranges — imagine all of the ways that the technology might fail, as well as the ways it could surpass your expectations, then set those as your end numbers.
Mentally, we support each other by embracing the complexity of science operations. We admit that it is challenging. We admit that it is draining. We admit that some days we want to give up. We stare down the beaten path, knowing that it is easier, but we choose the road less travelled because that is where innovation and disruption exists. We take up the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory, and we carry on together.
Drinking rocket fuel for breakfast doesn’t just project us forward. It gives us the power to adapt. It fuels our curiosity, our agility and our emotional intelligence. And, perhaps the most important factor is this: rocket fuel is a lot more palatable than cereal.