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