Define your “moonshot”

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. 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.”

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

In his recent Educause article, Josh Jarrett examines the different innovation strategies employed by institutions of higher education.  Of the ones outlined in the article, the concept of the “moonshot” really resonated with me.  Taken from President Kennedy’s iconic speech outlining the mission to the Moon, the moonshot as an innovation strategy involves clearly defining the operational goal yet recognizing the difficulty of the task.  In 1962, President Kennedy outlined the goal “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At the time, this was a huge challenge historically and scientifically.  As many people know, the Russians had launched Sputnik into orbit five years earlier and were planning its own mission to the moon. Rather than sit idly by, the President pointed to the heavens and gave a clear destination.  “We choose to go to the moon.”

Examining America’s space program at the time, getting to the moon would be a nearly impossible task for the country.  Sputnik didn’t just mark Russia’s ability to achieve the world’s first artificial satellite; it showed the country’s dominance in space.  Weighing in at 185 lb., Sputnik far outweighed the 4 lb. satellite that America was developing.  How could a country that lagged so far in the space race be the first country to land on the moon? President Kennedy, speaking before Congress, outlined the challenges.  “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”  The moon was the goal, Kennedy repeated that day.  And the country got to work.

I think a lot about innovation and the work many of us do in higher education.  In many ways, the traditional academy is being challenged by outside forces.  There are for-profit institutions, online programs, MOOCs, and so many other “disruptions.” Much like America was concerned about its security and its long-term technical competitiveness in 1962, colleges and universities are facing some of the same concerns today.  How should we respond?  Do we hold steady and hope that we’ll weather the storm?  Do we allow our institutions to slowly evolve and transform into some unknown entity that may be more viable in the future? Or do we select some nearly impossible task, define it as our “moonshot” and get to work?  The choice is ours.

It’s important to remember that the “moonshot” involves more than just identifying the destination.  The “moonshot” recognizes that there are challenges ahead and that we’ll learn from the journey.  We just need to select the appropriate target and get to work.

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