In mission critical systems, managers must champion and exemplify what has come to be known as the "critical mindset." But what is this exactly?

Critical mindset is characterized by four pillars: integrity, vigilance, agility, and competency.  The practical application of this set of ethics results in an empowered, engaged, and effective team.  Without it, you cannot remain in business.


Accountability — It is often said that the definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.  While true in principle, “the right thing” is often subjective. It can be shaped by circumstance and often defined only in retrospect.  If we remove the lenses of objectivity and hindsight, the actions we take, right or wrong, are always valid and justified in the moment of execution, if not a moment longer.

In this regard, integrity is not the quality of removing human imperfection.  Instead, it is the ability to objectively evaluate our abilities as well as our actions.  Can I admit when I’m wrong? Are my goals aligned with the goals of my team? Do I give credit for success and take the blame for failure? Do I understand my weaknesses and abilities?  Stated more simply, integrity means holding ourselves accountable. When you look at a situation, you have to say, "The buck stops here."

Stewardship — Stewardship of our team, customers, and resources is the qualitive application of accountability.  For a cohesive team, accountability is dynamic — moving downhill and uphill.  It is lateral and introspective.  As a team, we entrust each other with the responsibility to do our job and to ensure the well-being of the team. We are mutually responsible to know what to expect from each other and what’s expected of us. The team is accountable to leadership to effectively execute the mission.

As a leader, accountability, perhaps above all else, is paramount to the team’s success.  Even a brief lapse can be divisive.  Do I give credit and own failure? Are the standards and expectations clear, and do I enforce them consistently? Do I provide my team with the resources necessary to succeed?  Am I invested in my team? Do I value their contributions? Do I define goals and foster their success?

Similarly, our customers have entrusted their resources and often the functional entirety of their business to our care.  To this cause, we must be steadfast and obsessive in the execution of our duties.  Anything less is shirking our responsibility.

Mission Control

Gene Kranz was the mission control flight director during the Apollo One disaster that resulted in the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.  The Monday morning following the disaster, Kranz addressed an assembly of his flight control team with what has come to be known as the "Kranz Dictum," a quintessential display of accountability:

"Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect,” he said. “Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule, and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, mission control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

“From this day forward, flight control will be known by two words: "Tough" and "Competent," he continued. “Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into mission control, we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today, you will go to your office, and the first thing you will do there is to write "Tough and Competent" on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of mission control. "


We must remain continuously engaged, purposefully convicted, and relentlessly curious.  As leaders, we must challenge ourselves to not only seek out problems and conflicts, but to understand that, when found, we have a moral and ethical obligation to act on them.  Vigilance means that we do not walk past problems.  We ask questions until we not only identify the root of the problem but also understand the problem systemically; to not only resolve problems but also make thoughtful, meaningful, and value-added improvements.

It's important to understand that problems and conflicts do not exist in nature.  Interactions in the natural sciences always follow their defined laws, without exception.  Mission critical environments are no different. The output of a system will always be the product of the interaction of its parts.  The perception of conflict, or problems, will always come from incorrect or invalid assumptions.

With that point firmly in mind, we must conclude that assumptions have no place in our work; we shall strive diligently to identify, understand, and remove them.  Assumptions come in many forms, and we must realize that they are all an abdication of our responsibility as leaders.  


We live and work in an ever-changing world.  Being agile in a dynamic environment doesn't necessarily mean that we must move with speed. Agility and speed are not synonymous.  It's important to understand what agility is not, and that is the difference between moving with a sense of urgency and moving in haste.  Haste is poor execution of poorly planned work. Put simply, haste is a betrayal of preparation.

Being agile means that we move with an effectiveness of motion that is characteristic of moving with a sense of urgency. We must work to eliminate waste in all forms: waste of human effort in the form of churn and rework, the most grievous among these.

Excellent organizations must have robust and effective processes. This is true without exception. However, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of bureaucracy. Processes are a means by which an organization achieves its objectives, but they are not an end unto themselves. We must always be process-driven. To have an effective organization, processes must be repeatable, and results must be reproducible.  However, in the spirit of agility, we cannot allow ourselves to become so dogmatically rigid that we stem efforts of continuous improvement.

Agility, coupled with vigilance, means that we are proactive rather than reactive. We must "Go Out and Look" or "walk the Gemba," as James Womak advocated.  Add value to your organization by talking to your people and understanding the work in order to find problems, develop a systematic understanding, and improve processes to eliminate constraints.  You absolutely cannot add value by waiting for problems to come to you.  Is a burning building more valuable once the fire has been put out? Of course not!  Simply removing the undesired effect is not process improvement. Mission critical processes are no different.


Kranz famously mandated that mission control will be "tough and competent." He went on to say, "We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills."  

As stewards of our organizational resources, we are accountable to field a highly trained and competent workforce.  Our team's competency reflects our leadership, not their ability.

Failure to achieve and maintain competency will result in the eventual and inevitable collapse of your workforce. Assuming or even hoping that your people are qualified isn't good enough.  A comprehensive training program with line-item documentation of work tasks must be maintained. If this training and qualification program is not documented, benchmarked, and periodically audited, you are only making assumptions about the qualifications of your team.  If you find yourself relying on the heroic efforts of a few key people, you are experiencing a competency collapse. Attrition of all roles, but particularly these key players, will create a vacuum of organizational knowledge that may take years to fill.

In conclusion, although the core values of a critical mindset are presented here separately, it’s important to understand that, as pillars, they are mutually interdependent. Removing one pillar collapses the entire edifice. You cannot be vigilant if you are not competent. You cannot have agility without integrity. Removing a single pillar from the system removes the essential properties of the whole.   

*The views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not made for or on behalf of any organization.