Innovator's Dilemma in Space

Before I expand on this dilemma, let me first acknowledge the artist’s work that I have been sharing over the past few weeks. Pat Rawlings’ images have inspired me for many years and have been the source of many of my creative views about the future. Most recently I used his images in a conversation with a TV network about space travel 50 years from now.

Of the many definitions of creativity that I have heard over the years my favorite comes from author Dale Dauten. It is best captured in a quote from his book, Better than Perfect, “He brought together two ways of thinking that usually don’t go together, so his own brain got stretched. That’s one way to be creative – to force together ideas that normally don’t go together.” So creativity results from holding simultaneously in your mind two thoughts that normally don’t go together. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to bring together individuals with different view points and to hold the differing perspectives simultaneously in the room and discover the creativity that is beyond just the sum or compromise of the different ideas. A few years ago Dale Dauten introduced the Innovator’s Lab to bring together leaders from different industries to find creative solutions that resulted from the different perspectives within the Innovator’s lab community. It is a great concept that we we were fortunate enough to introduce to JSC a few years ago.

Personally I like the distinction that John Kao makes in Innovation Nation between creativity and innovation. Creativity is the rich source of ideas. Innovation is the ability to take an idea and turn it into something useful. The trick is not to throw out the creative ideas because they don’t fit into predefined criteria of usefulness. It is easy to allow for the possibilities while brainstorming but it is more difficult to allow for new solutions to what at first glance may appear to be a familiar problem.

Which leads me to the Innovator’s Dilemma captured by Clayton Christensen. At the heart of the dilemma is the concept that the success achieved by organizations from their original innovations makes it difficult for it to be innovative and creative in the future. If we applied the dilemma to Human Space Exploration it would state that what made us successful over the fifty years has focused the realm of possibilities within the context of our experience. Therefore, how do we allow for alternative ideas in support of human exploration while simultaneously holding our 50 years of success?  Or stated another way, how do we bring together the multi generations for creative new solutions. Can we hold both perspectives at the same time and find a creative path that is beyond the multiple generational perspectives? How will the multiple creative perspectives come together when we move from creativity to innovation?

Yet, there is another more subtle challenge that results from the Innovator’s Dilemma that is captured so well from Steve Boehlke from SFB Associates. In his recent publication, The Politics of Creativity™: Four Domains for Inquiry and Action by Leaders in R&D, he discusses the cost of creativity to the leader, which applies to anyone in the organization. The successful organization defines creativity and innovation within the context of what has enabled its success in the past. What happens to the individual that offers creative and innovative ideas that don’t fit within the organization’s definition? What happens to the individual that truly believes in his “out of the box” idea and continues to push it forward when it doesn’t fit within the historical norms of the organization? I highly recommend reading Steve’s examination of this cost for the creative leader. Is the tag “out of the box” thinker a badge of honor in your organization? Is a “trail blazer” encouraged to come to the creativity and innovation table? How is the creative individual rewarded and acknowledged? Going back to Dale’s Innovator’s lab where different perspectives are brought together for creative new solutions, how do we bring together the “out of the box” thinkers with those with the tried and true perspectives?

Finally, all of the above authors agree that innovation requires failure. If you don’t fail in the process then are you really being creative and innovative? The dilemma occurs after success is achieved and the organization no longer has a stomach for failure. Do the systems in place in the organization allow for discovery through failure? Is failure encouraged or discouraged? What would you or your organization do in the classical management example of a senior leader making a million dollar mistake? As the story goes, the leader was called into the CEO’s office and was expecting to be fired by the CEO. As he handed his resignation to the CEO, she asked “What is this?” He said “I know you are going to fire me for my mistake and so I figured I’d save you the trouble by turning in my resignation.” Amazed, she responded, “Why would I do that, I just spent a million dollars training you. I know that you will never make that mistake again.” Mission failures aside, what is your appetite for failure?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

A Perspective from a Baby Boomer

I must admit that last week I got that pleased, grateful feeling like the one I get from being “carded” at the grocery store checkout line when I purchase a bottle of wine. It has been a while since I was the age of a Gen Y’er, but I took it as a great complement to be mistaken for one last week. For those that do not know me, I am a “Baby Boomer” with 20 years of experience at JSC and most of my blog entries have been from a “boomer” perspective. Granted, those that know me best would not categorize me as having the typical “Baby Boomer” perspective, but is there really a perspective that captures an entire Generation? No, but I do think there is a difference between the image we have of NASA before we arrive and the image after we have been supporting this great organization. So, let me share how the image changed for me and why it is good to revisit our original vision. To that end, join me in visualizing those two images.

For many in my generation it was the Apollo program or Star Trek that sealed our future with NASA. For me it was the original voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  Yes, I am one of those that would love to see the mission of the agency to be, “To Boldly Go where No one has gone before.” My expectation was that upon entering the gates of NASA, I would find someone working on the Warp drive or a transporter. I thought that there would be people working on projects that pushed the boundaries of space and time. I expected Mission Control to look like the deck of the Enterprise. Instead, I found the Apollo Mission Control configuration that worked exceedingly well into the late 1980’s. Now don’t get me wrong; I believe that we are executing some very exciting missions and have some incredible technology projects occurring in various organizations around the Agency. My point is that my vision of where NASA was heading was different from the reality. I also found that many of my colleagues shared the same opinion.

Over the past 20 years that vision has been challenged by the realities of what is currently possible in the realm of human spaceflight. My original naiveté was reframed by the wisdom gained over the years and yet, there is much to be gained from recapturing the original vision we had when we first drove through the front gate. About 10 years ago I tried to recapture my initial feeling when I first arrived at JSC. It’s a long, but great story that can be found in the archived article from the NASA ASK magazine. The end result was that I was able to create a lab focused on looking at the leading and even bleeding edge of technology development. I found exciting research occurring inside and outside the agency that reminded me of the Star Trek technologies. There was the quantum pair possibility of either instant communication over large distances or teleportation and the potential holodeck application of the 3D visualization research at the University of Central Florida. In recapturing my original vision I found labs around the Agency that were collaborating and searching for new, creative ideas around the world. 

Now in 2008 I find myself wondering, what was that original vision of NASA for many of my Generation and the following Generations? What are the reasons why that original vision was not achieved? I carry a Motorola Razr in my pocket to communicate, so why can’t NASA push the boundaries of space and time? Earlier this year the Advanced Planning office asked a team of Generation Y leaders where they wanted JSC to be when they became Center Director or Program Managers.  We were asked by many, “Why did you ask Gen Y?” Partly, because they remember the feeling and vision they first had when they arrived at NASA. So think back and recall your original expectations when you arrived at NASA and hold it up to the view gained from wisdom over the years. Then see what unfolds. Yes, I am looking for my fellow Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers to offer their view of the future! Does your original expectation match the reality of where you are at now, FANTASTIC! Please, let me know. If it doesn’t, in what ways does it not match?

I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Shift Happens

There is a great video called “Shift Happens” that I would highly recommend. Even though there are advocates and critics on both sides of this video, it brings up some excellent points about how the environment is changing around us and encourages one to consider what we are doing to prepare for the shift. During the spring of 2008, quite a bit of activity had occurred that hint at a shift in the JSC community towards the Center Directors Vision. It has been exciting in so many arenas that I’m reminded of the line from the movie Princess Bride, where Mandy Patinkin tries to sum up the events that have transpired, “Let me ‘splain…. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” So, to sum up…

Back in May JSC had its first Vision Forum aimed at getting a broad spectrum of opinions on a JSC 20 year vision and the associated set of tactics that Mike Coats had requested from a team of Next Gen’ers. The JSC 20 year vision was to capture that Generations perspective on the JSC environment as it supported the Agency’s strategic goals when they became Directors and Program Managers.  The Vision forum was attended by a great mix of generations, disciplines and organizations. We received a great deal of feedback with two overriding themes that captured the general mood of the event. First, everyone agreed with the attributes captured in the JSC 20 Year Vision and secondly, everyone wanted to know how they could be more involved in the activities to move the center forward. It was energizing to see the enthusiasm and interest from so many wanting to help steer the future direction of the Johnson Space Center.

During the first week of June the JSC 20 year vision was presented to the JSC Leadership team. Not only was it well received but we discovered activities being conducted in each of the directorates that are moving the Center towards a more open, collaborative, innovative, integrated organization. We also discovered there was a great deal of synergy between the 20 year vision tactics and a set of engagement teams that Mike Coats’ Innovation Council was considering deploying. Also, there was a great deal of overlap between the vision and the focus of the Innovation and Inclusion Council. The focus of this council is to continue to grow an environment of open mindedness, inclusion and innovation.

At the end of June, the Innovation Council, JSC 20 year vision and a set of initiatives from JSC’s Joint Leadership Team were merged and presented to the JSC Joint Leadership Team. The resulting recommendation was the formation of seven engagement teams to identify activities to address various aspects of the JSC community. These focus of the seven teams are as follows: Information Technology; Recruiting/Ultimate Employee Experience; Mentoring; Work/Life Fit; Awards and Recognition; Barrier Analysis and the Communication Teams. An exciting shift is happening at JSC.  My question this week is what can be done across the Agency to encourage a shift across all NASA centers?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

It's Getting Crowded Out There

 This summer the Washington post ran an article titled “U.S. Finds It’s Getting Crowded Out There: Dominance in Space Slips as Other Nations Step Up Efforts”.  At first glance the article could be taken as a pessimistic view of the future for the Agency, but for me it is an affirmation of the strategy that Mike Coats, JSC Center Director, has been sharing with the JSC leadership for the past two years.   

During the summer of 2006 this image was generated to capture the perspective that LEO will be getting crowded and we could either choose to compete in a crowded LEO or lead the International team to explore beyond LEO.  Mr. Coats decided that consistent with the Agency vision, we should begin focusing our sights on leading the integrated International team, comprised of both government and private industry to extend human presence beyond LEO.  (Yes, I know Mars does not orbit the Earth, but the figure is trying to represent the idea that the next destination beyond the moon is Mars).


Leading, we have found, is a tricky word.  It carries so many different connotations with so many different communities.  For JSC and NASA, leading the integrated International team is only possible if the leadership of each participant in the team is acknowledged.  Two years ago Mike Coats encouraged each organization to reach out to the leaders across the space flight community and across industry to benchmark and where it made sense to partner with those organizations.  He realized that capability will continue to grow outside of our gates and that humanity’s ability to reach beyond LEO lay in bringing together the acknowledged leaders in the various communities.  His call for benchmarking and partnerships has led to strong collaborations with the Engineering leadership across the Agency and with the software development and simulation expertise at Ames, just to name a few.  Acknowledging the leadership of each of the participants in the collaboration has made the collective team stronger.  Recently JSC’s Space Life Sciences directorate acknowledged the leadership role that the Rice Business Alliance plays in spurring Innovation by providing seed money for proposals benefiting the human system.  Leveraging the leadership of Rice’s Business Plan competition will in the end leverage the entrepeneurial spirit across a larger community.


Ok, so what does this have to do with the growing space faring capability in the International community that is highlighted in the Washington Post article?  I believe NASA’s current strengths address the future described in the article in three ways.  First, the International Space Station has given this Agency the unique ability to collaborate and integrate the efforts of an international team.  We have established relationships that we can continue to strengthen as the International community grows their Space Exploration capabilities.  Because of these relationships we can celebrate the strengthening of the international team instead of bemoaning the fact that they are gaining capabilities as implied by the Washington post article.  Secondly, there is a spirit of solution seekers that is permeating the Agency.  Instead of always looking within, there is a growing emphasis to find the best solutions across the community, regardless if it is at another Center, commercial space or International.  As one Senior JSC leader is fond of saying, “It is not either/or.  It is AND.”  It is not a case of the International community or NASA.  It is not they lead or NASA leads.  It is we lead by capitalizing on our collective strengths. 


Finally the Center and the Agency is focusing more and more on growing an environment and culture of innovation and collaboration.  An organization that is continually innovating will continue to grow and adapt to the changing dynamics surrounding it.  


What do you think about the Washington Post article?  Do you agree or disagree?  If you agree, how can the Agency better position itself?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office