Creating Iridium | Book Review

"I'll tell you from down in the depths of the organization, a lot of times we were kind of amazed that we were given the trust and authority to do the right thing." (Jim Redden p. 54)

Disclosure: Durrell served as Board Chairman during a significant portion of my CEO tenure at innovative systems & technologies corporation (insyte) years ago.

Durrell Hillis' detailed chronology of the Iridium system is a series of interviews which pay tribute to numerous extraordinary people and accomplishments, usually breakthrough technical achievements only possible within a tightly aligned "team of teams." My instinctive reaction upon skimming early drafts of his book was that at the core, it is a story about leadership, although the numerous conversations read like a list of unbreakable sports records achieved.

Start with Appendix I, Durrell's poignant interview with Bob and Chris Galvin, which sets up the book as a leadership initiative. Many Iridium innovations predate more common terms today, such as Scrum Sprints, or Stanley McChrystal's Team of Teams, while embodying the spirit of a John Boyd "Acolyte" such as Raymond Leopold (Boyd, p. 309).

This review collects and groups key chapter takeaways into leadership categories, in particular philosophy & coaching, goal setting, and building high-performance teams.

Leadership Philosophy & Coaching

Hillis' situational awareness (pp. 13-17) recognized a perfect storm of events:

1. The Fall of the Berlin Wall
2. The Opening of New Markets in Russia and China
3. The Proliferation of Land-Based Cellular in New Markets
4. A Low Ebb in the Aerospace and Space Business Internationally
5. Motorola's Technological and Market Leadership in Communications
6. The Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS)
7. A Seemingly Impossible Chance in 1992 to Obtain the Needed Frequency Allocations Globally
and a subsequent leadership vision shared in the New York Times June 18, 1990 edition (p. 57):

"Pocket phones to Handle Global Calls"

Iridium, the "Secret Program," quickly became well known as a result of the broad based publicity campaign, and by virtue of speeches at major telecommunications conferences and press interviews that were conducted in many areas of the world (p. 56).

In perhaps the ultimate expression of Team of Teams, Hillis insisted on genuine partners, especially for the spacecraft bus, from the top echelon of suppliers, who viewed the program as strategically important to their company rather than just a target of opportunity (p. 74).

Thanklessly, and strategically John Mitchell took on the task of clearing the way of obstacles in the rest of the corporation (p. 47) - like the best coaches do. This was consistent with Hillis' leadership philosophy (p. 49): I feel one of the things you don't want to say at the end of your career is "We could have done that and we didn't have the courage to do it."

Understanding People | Energize2Lead Profiles

In Russia Hillis observed communism's failure (pp. 258-261), and learned the importance of understanding the needs of others, individually and culturally, as well as how to approach strangers. This allowed him to inform the Russians their launch services price actually had to be raised to $280 million.

Similarly, John McBride encountered a very different approach and risk tolerance with rocket launch procedures. This guy had done over 150 Proton launches and says "I [Russian guy] am not aware of any time we have ever scrubbed a Proton launch." There was a constraint on wind on a certain vector and a certain speed but basically rain, snow, visibility, nothing mattered (p. 287). This required a new level of collaboration, rather than compliance in order for the future successful launches.

Building High-Performance Teams

Reminiscent of McChrystal's differing teams, Hillis wished, via a diverse group of 15 across the company, to create or identify one or more space systems opportunities [for Motorola] as a prime contractor leveraging outstanding payload capabilities, along with semiconductor and communications expertise (p. 21). He insisted the teams will be empowered to make decisions at the lowest level and be accountable for outcomes (p. 52). This allowed effective team growth from 20 to 8,000 (2,000 Motorola and 6,000 contractors).

Despite encompassing nineteen strategic partners and eighteen operating companies invested in Iridium, Inc, "We (Jack Kelble - Raytheon) knew that if there was a problem that was brewing at the lower levels of the organization, we could always go to them [Durrell and Bary] and it would be taken care of. So it was the positive top to bottom environment that was set in the program that was really wonderful as far as we were concerned (p. 84)." This was confirmed at the Motorola Management Institute where an expert observing the Iridium engineering teams (p. 145) commented: "You people talk to each other and say things to each other that people don't say, that have known each other for years."

Goal Setting & Setting Priorities

Iridium started with (Karen Bertiger's question (p. 27) "Why can't cell coverage be everywhere?" leading to a vision of turning the cell network upside down and leveraging the ACTS switch (pp. 28-30). Very early, Hillis focused on High Payoff Activities (HPAs): One of the secrets of success was that the team didn't start with a big, thick specifications document (p. 44). They weren't deep "in the weeds."

Greg Vatt shares two critical and overarching design decisions: the selection of the best orbit plan (p. 36), seven orbital planes of 11 satellites for a total of 77 and the initial "Link Margin," required to communicate from handset to the satellites, 9dB (p. 37). On the the other hand, sometimes a specific component, such as the three-kilobit vocoder (p. 87), required selection even before it was commonly available.

Alignment was key - Mike Krutz: When we arrived at the Mission Control Facility in Lansdowne there were three requirements specs and different people were working on different ones.  He provided the necessary leadership focus stating "This is never going to work guys." (p. 206) We're going to have one spec and everybody's going to integrate it.

Dannie Stamp recalls two key strategic goals: A 5-day dock-to-dock cycle time objective at the final factory. One of the key cycle time requirements we laid on the factory floor was to be able to replace anything in a satellite in 30 minutes (p. 148). Even more agility was required, think of Peter Drucker: "Objectives are means to mobilize the resources and energies of the business for the making of the future." Jim Redden recalls this leadership approach stimulated block diagram development and significant power consumption reductions (pp. 194-195) saving the program from a show-stopper crisis.


Hillis' motivation style predates Dan Pink's 2009 definition: autonomy, mastery and purpose (see Drive) . He personally interviewed for "A" players, not only in terms of their capability, but to assess their motivation and willingness to work on what would doubtless be a brutal schedule over a long period of time (p. 67).

Dave Montanaro empowered his team: I sent people on a field trip to a Lexus dealer, with instructions to measure the gaps on the trunk lid, the doors, and anywhere two things go together that you can get to and take a statistical sample from several cars (p. 128). This led to the extraordinary performance of the Iridium Satellite Assembly Line (p. 132).

Autonomy and purpose where essential when the link margin increased from 9dB to 16dB, necessitating (p. 171) a complete system redesign. Jim Redden summarizes: The whole Iridium Systems Engineering team just basically rolled up their sleeves and said "Ok, let's get it fixed." (p. 173). One the best stories of autonomy and creativity occurs on pages 243-245 where Bob Foncannon came up with the idea to jolt each passing satellite with a burst of energy to hopefully trigger the phase lock loop circuits, which actually worked.


According to Hillis, Lockheed's program managers never got over the fact that for decades, Motorola was their subcontractor with Lockheed calling the shots (p. 94).  As we learned the best strategy in conflict is collaboration, if time permits. It took quite a while and caused stress, but eventually Lockheed submitted a new proposal that was very close to the $650 million that [we] had indicated was the proper bid (p. 98).

Pages 153-169 describe the greatest - and not just technical - conflict: Numerous national and political entities vying for satellite spectrum (frequency) licenses necessary for Iridium system operation. In this situation, an assertive conflict strategy, competing at times, and ultimately relying extensively on collaboration, led to three issued licenses on 31 January 1995 (p. 169).

Rickie Currens shares a good example of finding a starting point of agreement between different parties: "We decided to use the original document (contract) as the starting point for all negotiations, summarizing all significant changes and sending them out if anyone wanted to reopen negotiations." (p. 217)

Differences in culture frequently lead to conflict. The Chinese taught Hillis that they effectively use silence as a weapon in negotiation. He also knew that "saving face" (p. 298) was important telling his Chinese counterpart that he was personally insulted and walked away from the negotiation.


The Single Vessel Battery Critical Design Review (CDR) description reads like an After Action Review process (pp. 104-107). The best example was difficult communications between Hillis and Vance Coffman affirming accountability within the program. Similarly, Jim Redden recollects ...whatever was talked about in the room could have no repercussions from it. It was a situation where you came in and talked about what the big problems were and what should be done about them (pp. 180-181). "Is there anything that we talked about or haven't talked about that makes you want to kick the dog?" (p. 182)

In the best teams, nobody wants to let others down. "Everybody who had experience said we couldn't do this, and it's only because we didn't know that, we were able to get it done." (p. 203 - Steve Miles) "I was going to do whatever it took and it would never be because of me or any of my teams that we didn't make it."

Effective Decision Making

Iridium's relentless focus on communication led to simplified and effective decision making. After the redesign of the Iridium satellite in 1992 (Jim Redden), virtually all of the data necessary for planning the launches was available to the launch team and its launch suppliers so detailed analysis and specifications for mating the Iridium satellites to each of the launch vehicles could be derived (pp. 224-225). At that time the average size of an Air Force contingent to the launch site was 126 people and didn't include anybody that was back in any other headquarters in a supporting role. [Iridium's] average launch size was in the 30's (p. 225).

Correspondingly, a Scrum-like approach to reducing waste even applied to launch staff: John McBride describes Hyrie Bysal's sharp analysis:  "Only four guys can do everything." In the end we did the actual launch task with 8 guys (p. 274).


Without leadership, there would be no Iridium. Thank you Durrell.

Thank you Durrell for the signed copy of your book.

JE | September 2016