Out of This World: How to Collaborate When Work is 154 Million Miles Away

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Recently, we welcomed customers and prospects to our first-ever Connect Online event in Europe. The agenda was filled with insight, from our keynote speakers Adam Steltzner and Nat Natarajan, through to our breakout sessions.

As attendees from all over tuned in through their apps, Adam Steltzner, the chief engineer of the Mars 2020 Mission, appeared on their screens. 

While most of us have grown accustomed to completing projects or hitting targets from what feels like a world away from the office, Adam actually has done this. From a distance of no less than 154 million miles.

The NASA engineer explained how he led a team that invented, designed, tested and retested the revolutionary “sky crane” landing system that successfully placed the Mars rover, Curiosity, on the Martian surface in 2012. Even though the team was together when they built the system, their work was a vast distance away for some time as it journeyed through the great, dark expanse. 

It may seem strange at first to listen to business communications advice from a space exploration expert. But the team Adam worked with communicated and collaborated so well that they took intelligent life to another planet for the first time – so there’s bound to be some learnings we can all take with us. 

The success of us as a species, or any one of us making an idea, a new product, a new capability, comes from us working together, collaborating. Click To Tweet

Never underestimate what humans can do together

Adam inspired the audience with his telling of the 2012 Mission to Mars. Here, he recounts the importance of collaboration, especially when working from a distance.

“How come it worked so damn well? Well, we humans are strange. All of us, any of us, may have a fantastic idea. But to make our ideas come to life, we group in bands of humans we call teams. And the success of us as a species, or any one of us making an idea, a new product, a new capability comes from us working together, collaborating. We had an amazing team of individuals diverse in age, origin. We had a group of people who represented our world and created solutions that were most profound – a very powerful team of individuals, but perhaps more importantly, a very capable group of collaborators. 

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I’ve come to recognise how very important collaboration is and how essential it is in our efforts. When we’re remote like this, the tools we use – to collaborate, bring ourselves closer to feel connected – are important. I want to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned through this process, lessons about leadership, especially in this time of the pandemic.”

You've got to try and help people with different isolated perspectives recognise the positions, truths and perspectives of others. Click To Tweet

Support those that isolate themselves

“First, as a leader, or even as a team member, we all should take on a mantle of leadership. It is our responsibility to find facts. In my field, we build spacecrafts out of many different subsystems: telecommunications, propulsion, structures, separations and mechanisms. You will have individuals who have their understanding of the truth, their perspective, perhaps a little stove-piped. But as a leader, team member or someone creating this collaborative connection, you must help them balance their perspective. 

Those ‘stovepipes’ are powerful and dangerous. United is how we succeed. You’ve got to try and help people with different isolated perspectives recognise the positions, truths and perspectives of others.”

Hold on to the doubt

“As an engineer, I found that individuals and teams of people struggled with open questions. I discovered that they would leap [to respond] driven by their anxiety to answer a question, regardless of whether they understood what was being asked of them. 

By helping my colleagues hold on to the doubt, the answers we came up with were more profound and successful. If you hold on to the doubt, you’re engaging in curiosity-based decision making. This is as opposed to the fear-based decision making if you let your anxiety drive you.”

If you missed out on Connect Online this year and want to hear from any of the following speakers make sure to head to our YouTube Channel.

Roundups coming next

We’ll be sharing key takeaways from each of the breakout sessions over the coming weeks. Here’s a snapshot of all that took place:

  • Gareth Johns and Joe Brackenborough discussed how Thanet District Council transformed how they delivered services to citizens with cloud-based technology.
  • We heard from tech giant Mobica; CIO Tony Healy and Enterprise account executive Pam Shelton covered the value of bringing communications into one single platform.
  • RVP of enterprise Louise Newbury-Smith and solutions engineer Chris Moore explored how to use business communications analytics effectively.
  • Original Cottages chief technology and innovation offer sat down with  solutions engineer Chris Holt to see why a unified cloud contact centre improved customer service and operations.
  • Finally, senior solutions engineer Pascal Coignet explored how organisations are integrating business communications into their day to day workflows to maximise productivity and streamline processes.
Samantha Clayton


Samantha is RingCentral’s Content Specialist for EMEA Marketing. Before joining the business, she held various roles in content, public relations and communications. She has worked with companies across industries including education technology, marketing and advertising, connected home, telecoms and publishing.

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