8 Principles to make the Impossible Possible

Tuesday 20th December 2016

Thirteen years ago, I took up the challenge of transforming a vision, which the aviation industry considered impossible, into a reality: designing and building a solar airplane which could fly forever. The goal was to fly this airplane with unlimited autonomy around the world, a dream that we successfully completed with Bertrand Piccard almost five months ago when Solar Impulse 2 landed back in Abu Dhabi on 26 July after circumnavigating the globe with no fuel, powered only by the energy of the sun. 

What made it feasible? Developing the right mindset made it possible to push back not only the limits of technology, but my own human and personal boundaries as well.  To overcome obstacles, the most important was to always keep my own level of energy very high, especially in tough moments, and there were many! The following 8 principles were undoubtedly key factors for our success, and ones I would recommend applying:

1. Make sure your vision is crisp, easy to communicate and understandable. It should be clear enough that you should never have to repeat it!.

When Bertrand Piccard and I set about finding partners and building a team at the beginning, we didn’t know which path to choose to realize our vision. Nor did we have a clue what the airplane would look like or how the project would evolve. All we knew was that we wanted to fly around the world without a single drop of fuel. That was the vision, and yes it was ambitious, but clear enough as to enable team members, partners and stakeholders to remain totally aligned and focused until reaching our final goal.

2. Team up with somebody to complete your understanding of the world and your set of skills. It’s important that he/she be very different from you as it’s what makes you dissimilar that will create value. But it’s also critical that you share a very solid common ground which will keep you together in difficult times.

Bertrand and I come from different worlds, so most of the time, we have different opinions, ideas and strategies when faced with a question. He’s a psychiatrist and explorer, I’m an engineer and entrepreneur. This allows us to find different solutions from the ones we each come up with. We understood very early on that disagreeing was a great way to create value. In Solar Impulse, each of us contributed what the other part needed. It was like two parts of a puzzle that fitted well together. But differences are also a source of disagreement, miscommunication, misunderstanding and frustration. The important is to have something crucial in common, something to share, something which brings the two parts back together. In our case, Solar impulse is a life mission, so important to both of us that it always helped to solve our partnership issues.

3. Aim for a high performance team by combining empowerment and challenges. By challenging your team, your will enlarge their territory of knowledge, skills and confidence.

You can only succeed if you can get the best out of your team. We can all push our own limits when we accomplish ourselves. It’s a question of becoming owners of what we are responsible for and what we are doing. That’s what I call empowerment. By giving your team members the possibility to grow, to take decisions, by asking them to bring solutions and not problems, you will teach them responsibility and you will make them become owners of their world. Can there be any better motivation?

Is this enough? No. Make sure you challenge them regularly. Come with new questions, new challenges, push their limits in terms of skills and attitude, slowly expand their territory. Find the right balance between building up their confidence level through success and recognition and bringing them regularly outside their comfort zone.

4. Coach in calm weather and lead in storms.

When trying to make the impossible possible, the path can be smooth until the next big obstacle comes along. Use these “calm” moments to build up your team. Do however be ready for the tough ride when the crisis comes as your team will need you to lead them through the storm.

That is what I had to do during my flight from Japan to Hawaii. What I experienced then as a pilot was a mirror of my life as an entrepreneur. A few hours following the takeoff from Nagoya, I detected a failure in the system supervising the airplane while I rest, and all my engineers told me to return to Japan to fix the problem. How could I fly alone, for 5 days and nights non-stop, without this supervision and alarm system? But it was the first time the weather over the Pacific was extremely favorable after 2 months of waiting and delaying our departure. So I looked at the situation differently, found that the overall mission risk was reasonable, knowing that I would be able to cope with this deficiency. I decided to continue. It was a very difficult decision, knowing that it would potentially split the team and create distrust among them, but I deeply felt that it was the right moment. So I followed through with my flight!

5. Build opposite forces in your team to avoid complacency and missing your goals.

When you are successful in your endeavors, it’s difficult to remember not to take everything for granted and not to become complacent. In aviation, the risk materializes itself in a grave way: an accident and potentially the death of the pilot. It’s not about losing money; it’s about losing a life. What we really wanted to do was to avoid groupthink, by giving everyone the right to express bad feelings about a situation or a decision. But that was not enough. Which is why we decided to build a separate team to constantly review our decisions before each flight. A team not involved in the day to day operations, a team untouched by the pressure to succeed.

6. Be sure you welcome the unexpected and the change.

Endeavors which try to build something revolutionary are a constant challenge. Trying to do something disruptive is like a journey into the unknown. On one side you need plans and strategies to align your efforts, on the other side you know that everything will turn out to be different and that you will have to adapt. Be ready for change, go even further, welcome change to ensure that at all times, you maintain a positive view about a given situation. Change is a source of opportunities!

7. Look at obstacles like opportunities. When faced with a problem, spend enough time to understand what this new situation will bring you.

In 2012, as the engineers in Dübendorf, Switzerland, were performing load tests on Si2’s spar - the main structural part of the wing, similar to the backbone of the human body -, it literally exploded! It was a huge shock for the entire team. This was going to cost us at least a year of financing, assuming that the team could quickly assess the reasons of the failure. The entire project was at risk financially, technologically and psychologically as our level of confidence had been shaken. But this was a transformative moment for me, when I moved from explorer to leader: instead of thinking that we lost a year to rebuild the failed part, I began to say we had gained a year. Suddenly we had one more year available until we could start the flight around the world. So I decided to bring our first airplane, Solar Impulse 1, to the US, to fly from coast to coast starting in California. This was something Bertrand and I had always wanted to do but not known how! It led us to meet Google’s founders who decided to become partners of the project, covering part of our financial needs but also providing tremendous support in terms of online communication. This new perspective freed the team from only considering how to solve the obstacle to now considering how to develop the opportunity. It’s clear today that without this flight across America it would have been difficult to be fully ready at the start of the flight around the world.

8. Prepare for the worst case scenario to free your mind from anxiety and negative feelings.

Three years ago I was flying from Washington DC to New York with Solar Impulse 1. At midday, as I was flying over the ocean, a media helicopter came close to me to take some pictures. He immediately told me I was losing part of the undercover of the wing. He took some pictures, which he sent to our Mission Control Center. The first feedback I got from my engineers was that they were astonished that the wing had not disintegrated yet! You can imagine the shock I felt at the moment. Immediately, I started to prepare for bail out and went through all the steps I would have to do until landing in the water with my parachute. How to jettison the canopy, how to get out of the airplane, which position to take in free fall, where to find the grip to open the parachute, how to enter the water, etc. And I felt that I should be able to do it with the training I had done during the previous months. But I also I told myself: “You won’t get the chance to bail out over the Atlantic Ocean every day, so if happens today, you better enjoy it!” It would be another life experience! This perspective completely relaxed me, as I knew I could handle the worst case scenario in a safe way. From that moment on I was able stay focused and calm during the 9 remaining hours of flight before safely landing at JFK.

André Borschberg

CEO, Co-founder & Pilot at Solar Impulse