The workshop’s final plenary session concluded with a general discussion and then some closing thoughts from Douglas Terrier, NASA’s chief technologist. The comments from both the discussants and Terrier ranged widely, but most addressed one of two broad questions: What have we learned from this workshop? and Where do we go from here?
In the general discussion section of the afternoon plenary, workshop participants commented on what they saw as some of the most valuable lessons from the workshop as well as on common themes that they had seen emerge over the 2 days.
Putting the workshop in context, one participant identified the changing environment in which NASA operates as a major theme. “The marketplace in which we get our business done has changed,” he said. “All of the groups [in the various breakout sections] had a very similar construct: We have to do business a little bit differently. We have to develop the skill sets of NASA differently. I think that’s incredibly important.”
Perhaps the theme that got the most discussion during the plenary was the need for—and the difficulty of—killing off bad projects. One NASA participant specifically called for the agency to consciously develop the “kill, celebrate, reallocate” decision philosophy. “I think that’s something that we need to take action on as an organization, as a leadership group,” he said.
Another commented that much of the inertia that keeps bad projects going has its roots in the people involved and their interests and concerns. “That [killing underperforming projects] is really hard work,” he said, “because not everybody is fungible and you do have people that are parked for a little while.” Therefore, there are almost always stakeholders—and not just those in NASA, but those outside the agency as well—who resist the closing out of a project. But, he continued, “the bad idea or the thing that you shouldn’t be doing is usually blocking something good that you should be doing. There’s a surplus of ideas.” So it is important to clear out the bad projects so better ones can take their place.
A participant noted that the difficulty in killing bad projects makes it particularly important to have a pipeline of good ideas waiting in the wings. “Generating enough back pressure in the system so that it makes those decisions easier is absolutely critical.” If there is a steady stream of “great ideas that make the team salivate that they want to work on the next thing,” then that makes it much easier to give up that “pet project or the sacred project for the organization.”
Another participant tied the idea of killing projects with a second theme, which was redefining the idea of what failure is. Any innovation organization faces the dilemma that most innovative experiments are going to fail, he said, and he mentioned the comment by Fred Kennedy of DARPA that only about 10 percent of what DARPA funds transitions to operations. Thus, if NASA is going to continue to be an innovative organization, it will need to reconcile its “failure is not an option” culture with the reality that a large part of what any innovative organization does fails. “Part of that is the redefining of what failure is,” he said. “If you really learn lessons [from a “failure”] and can pivot and keep going, that’s a good thing.” Whatever it is called, he said—kill, celebrate, reallocate, or something else—NASA has to learn to expect that many projects will fall by the side of the road. “I don’t think we have wide acknowledgment of that yet,” he said, “but we’ve at least opened up that conversation and can start making it more explicit.”
As a historical note, Teresa Kline, a senior technical project manager at NASA, told a story about the origins of “failure is not an option.” She had the opportunity a few years ago to sit down with Gene Kranz, who is widely credited with originating the line, but he told her that he had never actually said it. His character in the movie Apollo 13, who is played by Ed Harris, did say “failure is not an option” in one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie, but those were the words of the screenwriters. Later, Kranz published a book with that title, after the line was famous because of the movie. Kranz told her, Kline said, that the line does capture the emotion at the time: “They had lives on the line, and the intent was, we’ve got to bring these guys home and there’s no way that we’re not doing that,” she said. “But he said he regrets using that as the title to his book” because it has had such a profound effect on the NASA culture. “So maybe,” Kline said, “this is something we and NASA want to think about: failure is not an option when lives are on the line. Failure is absolutely an option in the lab.”
On a related topic, another participant said that it will be important to change the culture and the processes so that people who work on “failures” are not labeled as being unsuccessful if the work was actually done well. “You want to reward people who took that risk and it just turned out the physics or whatever was not viable,” he said.
Another major theme was the importance of attracting, developing, and retaining effective innovators. One participant supported the idea that true innovators make up only about 4 percent of the population. “I think that’s a very true statement,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people out there who actually do this.” So the first step is to find them and hire them, and the speaker agreed that “hire rebels” is good advice, adding that these innovators need to be accompanied by “a few enlightened helpers.”
Once they have been hired, they should be collected in one place—what some people had called a “safe space.” “I don’t like that term myself,” the speaker said, “but I get the idea. I think you have to collect them all in one place and they can feed off each other’s energy. You have to imbue them with a sense of mission and overwhelming urgency. You have to keep the bureaucracy off their backs. And then finally—I really think [this] is important—you give them a stingy budget. The last thing you want to do is give an innovator too much money. They’ll go nuts, and they probably won’t deliver.”
Another participant agreed that building an environment that supports and encourages innovation is vital to NASA’s success. “That gets down to very tactical things about how to manage that from a workforce perspective,” he said. “How do we let our folks engage in that activity? How do we reward it? How do we encourage it? I think that’s really important.”
There was a brief discussion of whom should be considered “innovators,” with one participant arguing that there are many people other than those on the technological cutting edge who should be considered innovators—those who come up with valuable new training processes, for example, or new, more effective ways to communicate.
Another participant said he understood the importance of innovations in contracting and legal issues and so forth. “But the truth is,” he said, “I’m not looking for innovative contracting. I’m not looking for innovative legal means. You can call it that if you want. But what I’m looking for is innovative systems technology capability.” He said he has no problems with using the term “innovative” to describe inventive people in these other areas, but they are not who will be driving NASA forward in the future.
Janice Fraser, Bionic, offered two bits of advice for any organization working to improve their innovation capabilities, one of them long term and the other intermediate term.
The long-term suggestion was that it is important to provide the necessary resources for a change effort. “I’ve been working with Procter and Gamble for a long time,” she said, “and over the 3 years or so that they’ve been doing this work, they’ve gone from having one or two people working on it mostly full time to having a staff of, I think, about 10 people.” And, similarly, the amount of work involved in the effort has grown exponentially. So it is important to keep in mind, she said, that you’re on a 10-year journey. You’re not on a 2-year journey. And while it is natural to feel a sense of urgency and want to move quickly, people need to be deliberate about it. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said, “and it’s going to take real resources with real executive access.”
The second thing, she said, is something that every leader can do as they conduct their day-to-day business, which is to ask themselves, “Is there any possible way I can say yes to this thing?” In a cautious organization—which NASA obviously has to be, she observed—the default position is often to say no or to defer a decision or pass it along to someone else. But what if the default position was to say yes whenever it was possible and made sense? “It would change a lot,” she said. “And that’s not just for senior leaders. . . . It really applies to middle managers, and if senior leaders could get air cover to the middle managers who start saying yes, you’ll see your culture change very, very quickly. Because right now, people are probably expecting ‘no’ every time they ask for something.”
Finally, one participant mentioned the need for improved communication—both internal and external—as a theme. In particular, he said, the ability to articulate an answer to the “Why NASA?” question is incredibly important. The right sort of answer can be an inspiration and create a vision that defines what NASA is and where it is going.
In the workshop’s final presentation, Terrier discussed the key things he had learned from the workshop and listed several steps that he said he would be taking in the coming months in response to what he heard.
“I had high hopes for the workshop, and my hopes have been exceeded,” he said. “I’m really, really impressed, and I feel like we can actually take some action on the things that were talked about and move forward.”
He referred back to a comment he had heard at the workshop that NASA is not actually a learning organization but rather a listening organization—its people listen and talk a lot, but don’t actually change very many things. “We want to change that,” he said. “We want to be intentional about what we take out of here. That’s my goal, and that’s my charter.”
Terrier next offered a series of actions that he said he would start almost immediately. And it would not be just him, he said, but a number of senior leaders. He noted that about half of the NASA centers had been represented at the workshop by senior leadership. “So when you show up with a senior leadership team to talk about this,” he said, “it won’t be one guy trying to evangelize the room. It will actually be a team spreading the word, and I appreciate that.”
The first step, he said, would be to bring the entire senior leadership team together and talk about some of the specific things they need to do as a leadership team. He said it should be possible to do that in the first part of 2019. The first thing the leadership team should do, Terrier said, is carry out a refounding exercise. The term was new for him, he said, and he explained that it would involve discussing how NASA should be set up today if it was starting from scratch, taking into account today’s innovation ecosystem, supply chains, etc. The point of the exercise would be to use the idea of refounding as a framework for talking about how NASA can do things differently and better—how, for instance, NASA might use outside partnerships to take advantage of all of the innovation that is going on outside the agency. And he said that he hoped to be able to bring the senior leadership together for a day or two to take part in that exercise.
The second step, Terrier said, would be to find ways to equip the leadership team with the right skill set to execute the sorts of actions that had been talked about at the workshop. The leadership actually does a lot of formal training in things like program management, mentoring, and developing talent, he said, but it does relatively little in areas like design thinking and strategic planning, which he believes are things they could talk about. He also suggested that perhaps this could become part of a formal training module that leaders at NASA receive.
Terrier then spoke of how, when he was at Lockheed Martin and was transferred from advanced development programs into international business development, the company provided him with a great deal of training in business development and business management to get him up to speed for his new role. “How can we put some of those tools in place?” he asked.
Another step that Terrier discussed was the development of a one-page statement of the value proposition underlying NASA’s mission. “I’m going to try to get the team to do that,” he said, “to talk about how we create that communication tool about what our value proposition is—to see if we can do that on a simple one-pager and to be able to tell our stories as a leadership team communicating with the community around us, our stakeholders, and, more importantly, our workforce, so that we can all talk about what we’re trying to change toward, what that outcome is that we want.”
And it is not only the leaders who need the right tools, Terrier said, but the innovators as well. Some things are already in place, such as innovation rewards, but NASA needs to strengthen that. “A lot of discussion panels talked about providing innovators with tools, whether it’s through innovation awards or providing the right kinds of challenging hands-on learning projects for early-career folks,” he said. “I think we can do better, not just at consolidating the efforts we have in that arena, maybe providing a little more funding for that, but also in providing more recognition for innovation and rewarding that.” A couple of years back, he said, there was an agency innovation award, and it was a big success. Something like that is important “just to hold up folks and say that’s something we value in the most visible way.”
Terrier mentioned the persistent innovator who had spoken in the Leadership Diagnostics breakout session and described choosing to leave NASA because of the difficulties of dealing with the system. There are plenty of things to be passionate about at NASA, he said, but if the burdens outweigh the passion, it doesn’t matter. “So we have to figure out how to get that in order,” he said.
He also talked about paying attention to early-career innovators and said that he in particular liked the idea of 80 percent early-career replacement—that is, 80 percent of people who retire or leave for other reasons should be replaced with early-career hires. “And,” he added, “I like the career mentoring—not just throwing people a bone with money, but making that a real learning opportunity and ensuring that they’re successful.”
Along the same lines, he said, he liked the idea of creating a “Stop the Stupid” award to recognize people who pointed out obvious things that should be changed but never had been.
It will also be important, Terrier said, to get away from some of the rigid attitudes—“failure is not an option” or “everything’s got to be green on the chart, or you’re a bad project manager,” at least when those things are taken to silly extremes.
Reiterating that NASA has already been working on ways to improve its environment for innovation, he noted that the leadership has been working on a NASA Innovation Framework and also a Digital Innovation Portal. “We’re going to take all the rest of the data and make sure it either fits in with what we’ve got in the current set of solutions or find where we’re missing something—and then we’ve got something to go bounce that off of,” he said. “So we’ve got the right place to sort all this data that we’ve taken in, and I feel like we’ll be able to do that. I put that as my last item to do in the next few months—take this data, put it in that framework,” and work from there.
Terrier ended with a couple of personal observations. “I was one of those kids who saw the Apollo, and it’s really defined my life and motivated me,” he said. “There are millions of kids in the United States and around the world who need that integration in this generation. We cannot fail.”
Finally, he commented on how historic this moment could be—that what resulted from the workshop and the following months could influence the nation’s spaceflight program and even the entire future trajectory of human spaceflight. “I want to thank you all for being part of that history.”
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