Ambidextrous Organizations: The Power of AND

I was lucky enough this week to return to my old stomping grounds in Boston to take a class with an amazing collection of  CEO’s (Chief Executive Officer’s), Presidents, VP’s, COO’s (Chief Operating Officer’s) and others from 26 different nations.  The focus of the class was on Leading Change and Organizational Renewal and one of the most amazing aspects of the class was how the 91 participants from a wide spectrum of industries shared similar challenges.  Every industry was being faced with changes that were disrupting their organizations and they were looking for ways to better position their companies. 


OK, so what does this have to do with space?  Well, as I sat in the class I thought about the challenge ahead of us with the President’s direction.  He is asking NASA to focus more on pushing the envelope in technical innovations AND extend the International Space Station.  This may seem to be an easy task, but as I listened to my classmates and the professors it reinforced my belief that it is actually a very difficult path to navigate.  The reason is that the culture that made an organization successful in one domain may prevent it from being successful in another domain.  Specifically for NASA the culture that ensures the safe return of our astronauts can hinder us from pushing the envelope and taking risks.  By necessity we have been a culture of “Failure is not an Option” but now we are being asked to pursue initiatives where “Failure is a REQUIREMENT.”  Can these two cultures coexist?  Can you have a strong risk adverse and equally strong risk seeking culture within an organization without one “assimilating” the other? 


The short answer is YES.  But it is a yes that takes a great deal of effort and the right leadership.  The model presented was one that has been used by many successful companies including IBM (a great read on what IBM did is “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance.”).  The general idea is that a company needs to maintain the systems, culture and organization that support its core business while also creating an organization, culture and systems that will allow it to pursue the new direction.  For JSC this would translate into an organization that ensures the safe operations of the International Space Station and a new organization and culture that will embrace the risks required to push the envelope of technology.  The trick is giving the new organization the time to incubate.  To allow it to grow up and establish a new way of doing business.  History has shown that many organizations have tried this and failed and that one of the keys to success is a strong leader that can provide the top cover.  A leader that won’t be over taken by the dominant culture in the company. 


So, I would like to continue exploring this idea of maintaining an ambidextrous organization.  How do you create a structure that maintains both a culture of risk taking without impacting the continued success of the current business?  Do you have a successful model that you would like to share?  Or do you have lessons learned where your company tried and failed to create a dual culture?  Or what attributes do you believe are required in the leader that has to create a new way of conducting business alongside a strong dominant culture?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Edutainment- Another way to inspire

I am at the Bayou Regional FIRST robotics competition and am amazed at the NBA atmosphere of the event.  Filled with everything from the bleacher stomping “We will Rock you” to the sound system that gives you a second heart beat and team mascots cheering on the adrenaline filled crowds.  A bunch of wanna be engineers along with scores of families and friends that are excited by the 6 robots battling out to score the most points by kicking a soccer ball into a goal.  Today these future engineers and scientists are the rock stars of the Alario Center in New Orleans.  My hats off to the Stennis Space Center for their support of an outstanding event and inspiring our next generation.


There is much talk about the lack of a destination and how we need one to inspire our future generations but I think there is much to be said about making science, technology, engineering and math fun. Watching this crowd I think more will be inspired by their achievement in making a robot that will go to the national competition than a Mars mission by the end of this decade.  Yes there is a place for a destination but that is not the only way we can inspire.  We should not underestimate the power of mixing education with entertainment to attract our future workforce.  I know some will say that I’ve gone to the “dark side” but then again how many of us were attracted to the world of engineering because of the creations of Lucas and Roddenberry?


Edutainment cannot only inspire but it can also educate the world about the scientific and technical advancements we are making. Even though many are inspired by the amazing images from our technical achievements like the images from Hubble, engineers are not the best ones to share our discoveries and educate the public of our discoveries.  Just ask my family.  My thespian daughter can weave a tale that will keep us engaged throughout dinner while my tales may last through desert.  I like what Will Pomerantz , Manager of Google Lunar X-Prize, recently shared in his blog about the power of mixing the entertainment industry with our engineering discoveries, “Scientists and Engineers have fundamentally important and exciting things to tell the world about–but are ill suited to do the telling. By working together with entertainers, they hope to play to each group’s strengths, with the end result of conveying the key messages to an audience in an understandable way. To that end, the National Academy of Sciences is organizing events like last night’s salon, and even offering free scientific consultation to film makers and other entertainers who want to improve the scientific accuracy of their products.”


I believe it will take artists, entertainers, writers and the left brain people of the world to create the stories that will inspire and educate our nation.  It is images like the one at the right, from an artist that I continually get my inspiration from, Pat Rawlings, that will inspire a future entrepreneur to create the first Ivy league campus on the moon or for us Texans, a Texas A&M satellite campus near Tranquility base.  What engineer wouldn’t want to be part of this cathedral building project? 


What if we not only used robotics but video games as well? What are the other possibilities to inspire if we mixed NASA’s discoveries with the world of entertainment?   


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office