Office of Culture and Experience

Single Point Failures and Zero-Slopers

August 3, 2016 • Coaching, Leadership

During a recent conversation with my daughter, Rebekah, we had a discussion about her work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Bekah is an aerospace engineer and systems engineer on the next Mars rover project scheduled to launch in 2020. Bekah was explaining the importance of eliminating the risk of a single point failure on the rover. Because the equipment is operated remotely from earth, a single point failure that causes any system to become non-operational increases the risk of a catastrophic project failure for the entire mission. To mitigate this risk, Bekah and her fellow engineers design redundant systems and backup support to ensure there is more than one way to accomplish the mission.


Bekah and I also discussed our work in the Office of People Development. She had specific questions about coaching because she is using coaching as a major part of her leadership style with her team at JPL. Our coaching discussion centered on the importance of identifying the gap between current performance and desired goals. The coach focuses his or her efforts on helping individuals close the gap between where they are today and where they want to be in the future.


To illustrate our discussion, I drew a simple X-Y graph. I labeled the Y-axis “Performance” and the X-axis “Time.” I circled the origin and said it represents our starting point – the current level of performance. Over time most people want to increase their performance and we can draw the graph as a straight line or exponential curve. The straight line at a 45-degree angle would simply represent one level of increased performance for each segment of time measured. This isn’t about the exact mathematical model, but rather the idea of using coaching to move individuals and organizations forward.


Bekah then asked me an interesting question. She asked, “Dad, what do you do with the zero-slopers?” She went on to explain that she works with some people who have no goals for increased performance. They are happy with performing at the same level they have been performing for years. I asked her what impact that has on her mission and on her team. In Bekah’s case, this has caused her to assign additional duties to others to make up for those who don’t want to learn new processes and run the risk of not meeting time goals and deadlines. For some teams, the zero-slopers decrease productivity when additional team members are hired to do the work they cannot perform.


Our role as leaders is to increase the effectiveness of our teams by improving both capacity and capability. We improve our capacity by building depth and redundancy, ensuring that more than one person can do the job. We improve our capability by using coaching to help everyone set goals for increased performance over time. For leadership, this means succession planning – ensuring that there is a next generation ready and able to take on our duties with no drop in performance or productivity.

-Steve Sosland