To develop a clear idea of what the NASA of 2030 should look like, workshop participants took part in two contrasting activities. The first, labeled a “pre-mortem,” asked participants to envision a dystopian future a decade hence in which NASA had failed utterly. What would that failure look like? What would have caused it? The purpose of this pre-mortem was to, by contemplating what it would mean for NASA to fail, zero in on those aspects that are most important to NASA’s success.
The second activity, Imagining Success 2030, came at the same topic from the opposite direction and asked participants to answer the questions, What would a successful NASA look like in the year 2030? What specific features would it have?
The activities were carried out in individual focus sessions, which took place during the morning and early afternoon of the first day. The participants in these sessions produced a list of attributes that they associated with the future success of the agency and set forth a vision of NASA toward which they believed the agency should strive.
The three pre-mortem sessions were led by Dan Ward of MITRE, working with Julie Barthelemy of NASA. Over the course of three periods, all of the workshop attendees rotated into the sessions, so that everyone had a chance to participate in a pre-mortem session.
Ward structured the pre-mortem with a series of questions on a handout passed around at each session (Figure 3.1). The handout had a series of questions arranged into several topics: Describe the Failure (What important stuff did we not do? What unimportant stuff did we do? etc.), Symptoms (How will we know we failed? If we don’t do [fill in the blank], it’s a fail, etc.), List the Causes (What did we do that caused us to fail? What did we not do that caused us to fail? etc.), and Pre-Mortem Canvas (Was there something we lacked? Was it not well coordinated? etc.). After a session’s members all had a chance to fill out this worksheet, Ward led them through a discussion of their answers. All three pre-mortem sessions followed the same pattern.
In a general session on the second day of the workshop, Ward summarized the results of the previous day’s three pre-mortem sessions. As would be expected, the answers and the comments generated in those sessions ranged widely, but, he said, there were discernible patterns and themes.
There were a number of types of future failures that participants identified. These were not, as Ward emphasized, failures that the participants expected to happen or that they saw happening now; instead, the scenarios
captured how they envisioned a worst-case future in which NASA could be considered a complete failure. One of the main types of failure that came up regularly, Ward said, was a future in which NASA was no longer relevant—where it was no longer a leader in space, aeronautics, or technology and the public was no longer excited about the work NASA was doing. Another failure would be if talented people were no longer as interested in working at NASA. “Somebody mentioned a future scenario where NASA becomes just a regulatory agency as opposed to an agency that does hard things and cool science,” Ward said. Another failure would be if NASA became merely a managing agency of external contractors and no longer had its own in-house innovators.
The majority of the failure scenarios involved NASA receiving significant cuts to its funding, Ward said. “In the third session,” he said, “we talked about kind of an environmental metaphor, where to keep NASA alive there were two necessary streams of resources that come in. Just like in an ecosystem you need food and water and sunlight, NASA needs funding to come in, primarily from Congress, and it needs talent to come in, primarily from academia.” If either of those two streams got cut, he said, it would have a catastrophic impact on NASA as a viable agency.
Interestingly, Ward said, the session participants generally did not identify a specific technology or mission area as being essential to NASA’s future success. Whereas half a century ago NASA defined success mostly in terms of “put a man on the Moon” and 40 years ago success depended largely on building a reusable space shuttle, the sessions’ participants focused on other things. They acknowledged the importance of, for example, building new technologies and having successful missions to the Moon and Mars, but no single item was seen as more important than the rest.
What some participants generally did see as important, however, was that NASA continue to be an organization dedicated to “doing the hard things.” If NASA was no longer such an agency, that would represent a major failure, many participants suggested. Furthermore, Ward said, many in the sessions acknowledged that doing the
hard things comes with a certain amount of risk, including a risk of loss of human life, which is generally not present in the work of commercial competitors, such as SpaceX, which creates unmanned missions leveraging NASA’s intellectual property.
A related failure was a future in which NASA no longer had a culture of learning. Many of the sessions’ participants saw sustaining a culture of learning as being essential to NASA’s long-term success, so that losing that culture would represent failure. Participants offered at least two reasons for the importance of having such a culture of learning. First, having a reputation as a place where people are constantly learning new things helps attract top talent. Second, that reputation shapes the attitudes of both taxpayers and congressional leaders toward NASA and makes it more likely that the agency will continue to get healthy funding.
“So,” Ward said, “there was a big focus on learning in these discussions and about removing barriers to learning. What are the things that prevent NASA and its partners from learning? How can we get those off the table and make it easier for NASA to learn and to share the learning?” Specific suggestions included experimenting with human resources practices such as job rotation and new collaboration and innovation processes. Furthermore, some participants suggested, there should be clear mechanisms and forums for NASA employees to share what they have learned, both within NASA and with the wider public.
A different sort of failure scenario that was identified during the pre-mortem sessions saw NASA failing to tell its story in a compelling way to industry, to academia, and to Congress and thus failing to inspire those outside of NASA to support and collaborate in its work. A number of session participants suggested that if NASA is to remain a relevant, exciting thought leader and innovator, it needs to double down on telling its story in a compelling way. Citizens, students, industry partners, and political leaders all need to hear about NASA’s work, technologies, and missions.
One session participant pointed to the InSight landing on Mars that had taken place 3 days earlier and asked, “How many TED talks will come out of this successful mission?” As Ward commented, it would seem that a mission like that should have enough content for dozens of TED talks or other presentations to the public. The challenge then is to make sure that the story gets told—and, more broadly, that NASA’s leaders and employees improve their storytelling and communications skills.
“It turns out that giving a TED talk is hard,” Ward said. But, he added, giving a TED talk is also a skill that can be learned. Improving the NASA workforce’s communication skills will require an investment of time and resources, but it is something that can be accomplished.
One of the items in the pre-mortem session worksheet asked participants to fill in the blank on this sentence: “If the only thing we do is ______, that would be a win.” And, Ward noted, one of the answers that popped up in all three sessions was “to build strong collaborative partnerships with industry and internationally.”
In particular, a number of session participants acknowledged that NASA is no longer the only game in town and argued that the agency’s continued presence as a relevant leader in space and aerospace will thus depend on its role as a collaborative partner rather than an independent actor. One example that a number of participants mentioned is the existence of civilian space companies such as SpaceX that are increasingly accomplishing missions that were previously done by NASA alone. As long as NASA is recognized as a valuable partner in these missions, Ward suggested, then the agency will rightfully receive some of the credit for successes in this area.
“These strong collaborative partnerships mean NASA is doing hard things,” Ward observed. “NASA is learning, NASA is leading, NASA is contributing to advancing science, technology, space, aeronautics—and doing more than just functioning as a regulatory partner, but as a genuinely collaborative leading partner.”
Summing up the lessons learned from the pre-mortem exercise, Ward identified three main things that participants identified as being important for avoiding a dystopian future: developing strong partnerships with industry and internationally, continuing the learning culture at NASA and building on it, and improving communication across NASA and with those outside of the agency. NASA is already doing many of these things, the session participants said, but there is room for significant improvement in each area. “We need to do more of it,” Ward said, echoing what he had heard from many session participants. “We need to ‘crank it up to 11,’ doing it more deliberately, doing it more strategically, but these aren’t alien ideas, these aren’t things that NASA has never done before. They’re hard things, they’re important things, and they involve learning, inspection, and growth and participation and collaboration, but this is really stuff that is in NASA’s DNA already.”
“And that’s good news,” Ward concluded. “A lot of the things that people talked about that NASA needs to do to avoid the dystopian futures we were imagining, these are things that NASA is, to a certain extent, already doing.” Continuing to work on these skills and taking them to the next level will be challenging, he noted, but challenging work is NASA’s sweet spot. “You guys learn, you do hard things all day long,” he said. So what NASA needs to do, he stated, is double down on building strong partnerships, emphasizing learning, and improving communication and storytelling skills across the workforce.
The second set of sessions, devoted to the topic of “Imagining Success 2030,” was run by Emily Truelove of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, assisted by Jill Marlowe of NASA. Again, all of the workshop participants rotated through one of the three sessions on this topic. The general thesis underlying each session was that it is 2030 and NASA has achieved the following “vision of success”:
Externally NASA is seen as an agency with a common mission, leading with a vision for exploration. The agency maintains an awareness of the big questions that need to be answered and provides an architecture for discovery that also supports America’s economic and national security goals. NASA is recognized as the place where high-risk/high-reward research is performed, followed by valuable technology transfer and support to American industry.
Internally NASA has a highly innovative culture where the walls between organizations are low, allowing easy collaboration throughout the agency. Ideas are linked to missions and mission support objectives, and barriers to innovation are understood and strategically addressed. Partnerships with outside organizations, whether industry, academia, other agencies, or internationally, are part of daily life. There is an energy, brought on by the innovative creativity and excitement of a diverse and inclusive workforce. There is a high cadence of opportunities to innovate while forging the future of exploration and discovery.
To explore what that vision of success meant and how it might be achieved, each of the three “Imagining Success 2030” workshop sessions was divided into five groups, with each group focusing specifically on a particular area that is vital to success: leadership, talent, culture, work processes, and partnerships. The session participants were told to assume that NASA’s vision of success had been achieved and to address two questions, “What would that success look like?” and “How was that success achieved?”
In particular, the participants were asked to answer those two questions each in a particular format. The answers to the first question, “What would that success look like?,” were to be given in the form of headlines that were written on orange Post-it Notes that would later be arranged by topic. The answers to the second question were to be given in three specific forms: what NASA starts doing in order to achieve that success, what NASA continues doing in order to achieve that success; and what NASA stops doing in order to achieve that success. After writing the start, continue, and stop statements on a whiteboard, each group was told to decide on the most important things to start, continue, and stop and to write those things on Post-its.
In the plenary session on the second day of the workshop, Michael Ku, vice president, global clinical supply, Pfizer, summarized what emerged from the participants in the three “Imagining Success 2030” sessions. He began by sharing some of the headlines generated in the session (Figure 3.2). Some of the headlines were in-jokes that the NASA employees in the audience appreciated: “NASA installs new technology—two months before launch!” “SpaceX admits that NASA’s technology led to success.” And “NASA administrator approved for 10-year appointment.” Ku commented about the last one: “I appreciated the NASA colleagues who explained to me what that meant.”
The other four headlines that Ku displayed all focused on a future where NASA is widely considered one of the most innovative agencies in the world and, therefore, a place where people want to work or to collaborate with. Those headlines were as follows:
- NASA’s partnerships create industries.
- NASA recognized as top developer of leadership talent for research and technology [R&T] companies.
- NASA is the landing place of choice for the best and brightest talent.
- NASA is the partner of choice for pioneering solutions—“Turning science fiction into reality.”
Those were just some of the headlines generated in the sessions, Ku noted. The others covered a range of topics. Some spoke generally about the agency’s success, such as, “NASA achieves mission early to benefit of mankind.” Others focused on workforce issues, such as, “NASA recruits and retains a flexible workforce that leverages partnerships with industry, academia, and the world” and “Incentives drive culture: new incentives in line with Vision 2030.” Still others pointed toward the importance of establishing partnerships and doing it in the right way with the right partners: “NASA has established partnerships based on shared accountability, shared investment, and joint planning” and “NASA partnerships aligned with core values and expected outcomes.”
But the topic that seemed to generate the most headlines was leadership, and the session participants had a lot to say about what leadership in a successful NASA in the year 2030 would look like:
- Leadership culture is open, inclusive, and learning-focused; provides shared consciousness; and offers access to decision makers.
- Leadership is agile, leading to actions to move in new directions in a timely way.
- Leaders are ambidextrous: learning, questioning, strategically using diversity.
- Leaders are skilled at adapting between didactic, consensus, and democratic decision making.
- Leadership fences resources to disrupt ourselves before someone else does—intentionally resourced innovation.
- Our leaders are sought out by external R&T top-tier organizations . . . and we seek out leaders with external experiences.
Given that vision of a successful NASA in 2030, the second question addressed what the agency did between the present and 2030 to arrive at that point. Ku displayed what he described as the “top” answers from the different sessions according to votes cast by the session participants. The top answers, along with many of the rest of the answers, are listed below, divided into the five topic areas (culture, leadership, partnerships, talent, and work processes), with each topic further divided into behaviors that participants thought NASA should “Start,” “Continue,” or “Stop.” Some of the answers below are followed by comments that Ku made to elaborate on them, but most appear by themselves without any comment, as they are generally self-explanatory.
- Start: Create organizational agility to incentivize learning and measure outcomes (debate, decision, accountability).
- Start: Bring decisions to the right level of expertise and responsibility to accelerate speed.
“Speed is one piece,” Ku commented. “We define velocity as speed with purpose. So hopefully when you have debate, you can do it with good velocity and to drive accountability.”
- Start: Have debate, make decision, hold people truly accountable.
- Start: Digital accessibility through shared consciousness, shared purpose, as “one NASA.”
“Hopefully that resonates with everyone,” Ku commented.
- Continue: Drive toward enterprise consciousness by being willing to try, evolve.
- Continue: Make Innovation Day like Safety Days—important to management.
- Stop: Expectation that everything is “green” or should be “green.”
- Start: Groom “One NASA” leaders versus silo leaders; value diverse (including external) experience.
- Continue: Bridge and integrate leadership across the mission directorates (e.g., science, space technology, and exploration).
- Continue: Tell our story to the public.
- Stop: The “competition model.” Want competition of ideas but not of resources. “Coopertition.”
“It is not wanting to stop the competition of ideas, but it’s more about not competing on resources. . . . Coopertition—you collaborate and cooperate but at the same time compete on ideas. Something of that nature might be what leadership needs to think about,” Ku said.
- Start: Create and invest in strategic long-term relationships and co-create a vision/plan for the future together with those partners.
- Start: Movement toward collaborative environment between and among NASA centers.
“The challenge was to understand if partnerships are just about external partnerships, or also about the internal partnerships that you have between centers,” Ku said. “It resonated that it was something to consider—the partnerships internally within NASA.”
- Continue: Strategic partnerships within and external to the agency.
- Continue: Build partnerships with a larger ecosystem and continue diligence toward diversity.
- Stop: Make things competitive that should be directed and vice versa (internal and external).
- Start: Give opportunities for early career hires to have a wider perspective on “how the system works” (e.g., rotation at headquarters, other centers, industry).
- Continue: Diverse internship programs and expand to lifelong relationships.
“I heard something about the NASA Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success, and Teamwork (FIRST) program,” Ku said. “As limited as it is, continuing to expand it would be greatly appreciated.”
- Continue: Current exchange programs and expand to industry/academia; also expand exchange programs to all levels within the workforce.
- Continue: Provide hands-on leadership opportunities for early-career people.
- Stop: Select leaders based primarily on technical merit.
“There are more dimensions to leadership than just the technical aspects of it,” Ku commented.
- Stop: Expectation of lifetime employment.
- Start: Digitize and use digital processes and streamline execution to be a better partner. (A digital process would involve the organization around infrastructure such as digital communications so that data are in digital form when they first arrive in the system.)
“The processes might be different. So reflecting on that for NASA means potentially doing much simpler processes, hopefully more effectively and in a more timely fashion and executed better,” Ku said.
- Continue: Strengthen Space Act Agreement (SAA).
- Stop: Make decisions based solely on urgency . . . and then debating.
- Stop: Multilevel, hierarchical decision models and processes for everyday issues. (Drive decisions to the right level of expertise and responsibility to accelerate velocity.)
- Stop: Serial review process that necessitates multiple decision gates; fewer decision gates means a quicker decision process.
And those, Ku concluded, were the ideas for how NASA fulfilled its vision of success in 2030. “Imagining Success 2030” is about doing what you all do well,” he said, “which for me as an outsider makes me excited to see what you’re doing. So I hope with the information that we gleaned yesterday, it will make the success in 2030 a reality.”