When do competent teams perform better? When they are not micromanaged, have the requisite resources and there is no bothering from any quarters other than achieving the end goal. When they can singularly focus on the execution and give their undivided attention to the critical project at hand to turn it into a success, right?
A calm, sedate environment and resolute attention to micro details are not only required but also expected. When we take away from the teams, that “zone of performance” knowingly or unknowingly by intruding into this sacrosanct space, their performance can waver. The last lap of any project execution can truly be daunting and can turn into “minutes of terror”. After investing so much effort in planning, if things go wrong, the team has to take all the embarrassment and negative consequences in its stride. A minuscule error of judgement can lead to failures. More so, when it is space missions.
Something similar happened with the Chandrayaan 2 mission at the Indian Space Research Organisation, an institution the country takes immense pride in. The visuals we saw on our television sets were of bewildered and disappointed faces in the mission control room, incidentally, infested with clunky cameras and cables on the floor and peering eyes. A disinterested wink here and a distracted look there, the palpable tensions were writ large on the faces of the staff monitoring the descent of the lander Vikram on their screens during the final act and probably also praying in their minds, they be left alone to do their jobs.
But filming history in the making is more important. It doesn’t matter at what cost. The cost of encroaching the mental and physical spaces, no matter how remotely or reverentially, can handicap the team from optimally focusing on the work at hand. Unless, the team sitting in the room was particularly happy and grateful for the pans, tilts and zooming cameras sitting alongside them.
The sanctity of the operation control room cannot be violated. No external gadgetry or personnel should ever make their way into the sanctum sanctorum. What if a short circuit happened due to faulty equipment brought in or a possibility of camera battery catching fire or some such mishap. Where would that lead us to?
It is surprising to see such a risky act played in front of our eyes in the mission control room itself. The operation control centre is kept out of bounds to non-essential staff, personnel and gadgets. In the entire scheme of things, mission control rooms occupy a sanitised, secure, safe and secluded spot be it airports, ports or railway networks. And here it’s about a space mission!
Celebration Can Wait
Secondly, the world can wait. The celebration can wait. There is a difference between witnessing history and history being “made”. The witnessing can wait. Let’s first focus on making history. Let’s get the job done first. Successful execution should be the only priority, as compared to the rituals of receiving visitors, posing for the cameras, sharing pleasantries and protocol. There should be a provision for “defer live” than the simulcasting of such events to the public. What is the point of adding to the pressure in the already high-octane-charged environment while our scientists are still remotely choreographing and delicately manoeuvring a space mission in the vast expanses of outer space?
Media’s wall-to-wall coverage was as usual clichéd. It is already an established fact that the core competencies of our television anchors are to take on to character-acting and dramatisation with ease. What came as a new low and display of shocking insensitivity was during the presser, some lofty-minded media personnel harangued the scientists to bring none other than the chief of the organisation to face the media queries. That is when the mission was still under way and operational issues were still being sorted. It also clearly shows how the space organisation has been left wanting in handling their communications protocols.
Barring a few exceptions, science journalism died long ago in the country. No wonder television channels thought it fit to send “political reporters” in droves to cover this specific event! It would have saved the day if the media and invitees were allowed only after the operations were completed and a recorded minute by minute account was relayed to them, sans nail-biting suspense, which only a handful of staff should be privileged to access and witness first, that too in a controlled environment setting.
The presence of top bosses — be it political or executive — might lift the team’s spirit, but it can also add undue pressure and divert the team’s precious and limited time when there is a delicate and an expensive mission waiting to be executed. A few milliseconds set apart is all that it takes to make a difference between success and failure.
Leave Scientists Alone
Let us not patronise scientists by thumping their backs, wiping their tears. They need none of that. Besides, it makes for bad optics. Perhaps none other than the scientific community knows it better and is accustomed to accepting failures with grace and humility. It is part and parcel of their daily routine and high stakes space missions.
We just need to maintain a measured, respectful and dispassionate distance from those who are executing their work. It is their sole and primary responsibility to the nation to perform and maintain the integrity of the process without fixating on results. Nothing should come in its way. We should leave them to their devices, and let their work speak eloquently.
Lastly, with such high stakes, it is also unseemly to see a lack of well-trained professional communication apparatus to handle such events. Isro could have handled the media in a more nuanced manner than being amateurish about it. It is time communications became a key component for the organisation in all its future endeavours.
Let us hope research organisations do not fall prey and be smitten by the extent of media coverage, but be only concerned with delivering feats that open up the next frontiers of science, which Chandrayaan undoubtedly was destined to do. Alas, it has to be done all over again. Let us leave the scientific community alone, they know their job and they can deliver without falling into the trap of making everything into a televised spectacle.
(The writer is a senior media & communications consultant based in New Delhi)