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What makes ISRO so successful?

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.

After the successful PSLV C-37 mission, Chairman ISRO stated, “The mission was not intended to set a world record. We were just trying to utilize the opportunity that we had and maximize the returns. Other things are incidental”. This statement succinctly encapsulates the working philosophy of ISRO leadership. The objective is to bring value to our society and country using limited resources in a progressive manner. ISRO leadership has also come a long way in meeting this objective by making its systems work small, smart and strict. Together these 3-s actually make ISRO work.

The idea of small and smart reflects in the size of the organization. ISRO has a small budget and a small number of scientists compared to those of countries with whom we are competing in space exploration. Further, these scientists are not even from IITs, the best technological institutions of the country. Yet, the leadership has developed them into a key resource. This has become possible by nurturing a culture of continuous training at regular intervals, hard work, quick decision making and result orientation.

The leadership values the budget, uses it in a controlled and strict manner. For example, the purchase process comprises of various stages that are committee based. The committees are a mix of scientists, purchase and finance and administration experts distributing responsibilities to the people effectively, without any unnecessary fear of vigilance. Further, the culture of vigilance is such that it continuously guides on real time basis, instead of doing postmortem.  This inculcates confidence and helps in taking fast, and right decisions. It is a result of this orientation that the Mars mission of ISRO cost only one-sixth the cost of Mars missions run by NASA. In addition to the size of scientific personnel, the size of the administration is also kept small, and bureaucrats work in cohesion with scientists to achieve the goals set by the leadership.

The idea of smart is also apparent in the structure and functioning of the organization. The scientists are a good blend of distinguished ones, at a senior and middle level as well as students just out of the university. In order to plan and implement strategic goals the senior leadership has a very hands-on style. There is a system of formal communication which is cemented with a personal touch. Top scientists pay attention to view points of juniors and give them feedback in detail. This culture of support is complemented with close monitoring of the performance of scientists. These mechanisms reward performers and keep morale high, which leads to the excellence that ISRO is known for.

The culture of strict is exemplified in the minimal number of court cases against the administration by the employees. The unions are kept under control, and have regular meetings and hearings with the management to sort out any administrative or welfare related issues. Their genuine agendas are typically implemented.

The idea of smart extends to the physical environment. One can see that all ISRO campuses are lush with greenery, and the landscape is very well maintained. Canteen premises are neat and clean, and good, simple, and hygienic food is available at subsidized rate. The medical care and its administrative process is made employee friendly. The employees are generally keen, and takes turn to monitor the well-being of the environment of the centers.

The 3-s strategy of ISRO leadership is the magic formula that makes ISRO such a vibrant and successful organization. While different leadership ideas have been propounded in the private sector, this approach is one highly successful case study in the government context. Hence, it behooves the leadership of other government organizations to study this philosophy and try to implement it in their own organization.

— written by  Tripti Mathur Mehra, Indian Railway Officer, worked on deputation in ISRO

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Tripti Mathur Mehra is a civil servant and serves as FA&CAO in Indian Railways.
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