Coping with Reduced Resources: Lessons from a Thief

I remember running into a colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while.  He had taken a new position so I asked him how it was going.  “Terrible”, he said.  I asked why.  He said that if had enough budget and people, he’d be successful.  I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”  Sadly but predictably, my colleague prematurely moved on to another position.   There’s never a time where a manager has all the time, people, and resources they want.  That relentless tension drives us to use the requisite creativity and resourcefulness that results in continuous improvement, learning, and success.

Ironically, an Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter (no acronym needed here, right?) took the opportunity to remind me of a lesson that all managers learn very early in their careers.  I have a glass chess set on my desk and have an ongoing game with Cliff.  We only make on average about one or two moves a day, but over nearly a year, we’ve had a chance to play three games.  In the middle of a game, the Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter snuck in my office and took my knight and Cliff’s rook. 

“Rest assured I have taken great care of [them].  But a game of chess [can] be akin to a project…  And much like a project, you may not have all the resources that you need, but the project must go forward.  How do you complete the project when you are missing critical resources?  How resourceful can you be without the proper resources? “- Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter

NASA offers us an amazing lesson of resourcefulness.  Consider NASA and the Apollo 13 crew whose ingenuity helped to solve a life-threatening problem in orbit using duct tape. 

“There was, of course, a fix; and it came in the form of an ingenious combination of suit hoses, cardboard, plastic stowage bags, and CSM canisters – all held together with a liberal application of gray duct tape. As was usual whenever the Apollo team had to improvise, engineers and astronauts on the ground got busy devising ways around the problem and then checked out the new procedures.”   Eric M. Jones, Apollo 13 Lunar Surface Journal

When facing a situation where we cannot fail, we are able to reach deep and deliver solutions to problems that seem impossible to solve.

Another lesson comes from the Washington Redskins Super Bowl XXII champions.  The team loss key resources during the 1987 NFL season due to a players strike.  The “replacement” Redskins put the team on a trajectory that resulted in a remarkable come back from behind victory against the Denver Broncos. 

“While some clubs chose not to assemble decent rosters of fill-ins, the Redskins carefully put together a solid group. The Redskins went 3-0 with the subs and scrubs and it made a difference, as they won the NFC East with an 11-4 record.” – Larry Weisman, Flashback: Redskins Dominate Denver In Super Bowl XXII

Well, I coped with the loss of my stolen chess pieces.  Furthermore, I ended up winning the game with replacement pieces and a key move made by rookie player and Administrative Officer, Jason:

“I don’t really know how to play well.  This is a knight right? I move it two squares one way and one square another way right? Can I make just one move?  I think it’s good.” – Jason Gillis, Administrative Officer and Future CIO

I close with a thought from the Rookless Cliff:

“The Mystery is solved….. 🙂  The answer … as a project manager you replace resources and move the project forward! Paradigms in thinking must often be changed to achieve new and old goals when resources are reduced, removed, or changed. How we look at resources and incorporate new resources to fit our need [helps us move] the project forward to the end state! All resources are that, they are resources to be used, the question is how flexible are we at using those resources to achieve the project goals.” – Clifton W. Ward III, Service Integration Manager

So, dear Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter, silly rabbit, tricks are for kids.  No big mystery here.  Coping with reduced resources requires flexibility, ingenuity, and the courage to leverage opportunity. 

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

P.S. Good luck getting past the Secretaries this time!

9 thoughts on “Coping with Reduced Resources: Lessons from a Thief”

  1. Linda,

    After reading your latest blog entry, my first thought was to reference the field engineer’s mantra: improvise, adapt, and overcome.

    After further review, I instead decided to revisit the CAIB’s assessment of the causes of the Columbia accident.
    The board found that chronic underfunding and lack of critical resources was as much a contributing factor to the accident as the bipod ramp foam shedding was. I can only watch and pray that the exodus of skilled shuttle workforces and the reallocation of already scarce resources does not lead to having to carve more names on the wall in Florida along with opening more graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

    Spaceflight is the most demanding endeavor undertaken by humanity thus far. Like aviation, nuclear power, and submarining, it demands nothing less than the best, and mistakes are paid for with lives.

    “Coping with reduced resources requires flexibility, ingenuity, and the courage to leverage opportunity.”

    It also requires courage…the courage to take a stand and say “Stop!” when what’s going on around you defies the laws of physics, common sense, and logic.

    Taking off your engineer’s hat and replacing it with a manager’s hat doesn’t change the laws of physics…some guy named Feynman proved that!

    Attempting to operate a space program with less than the required resources has been proven to be a recipe for disaster.

    By the way…I just returned from Homer Hickam’s “Rocket Boys” festival, and it was sad that no one from WVU, Marshall, or NASA could attend.

    I suppose that “resources” are scarce all around, eh?

  2. Masking one creative idea in a grand vision is what I like to do it put me in the physics of the experiment. Thieving is an imperative to the construction if you visit nasa over a long time and look at all the programs you find that there are creative opportunity,s for a novice engineer the advancement is almost none imagination applicable its a reminder game of what is possible as well as working with the outer limits automation is about simplicity a goal is sometimes just a recognition of what works when there,s a lot that doesn’t I am not a big fan of the space elevator i think it will fail but this idea has so much promise there is a desperation to find the nano technology that can achieve the objective the possibilities could be irrelevant to the technology until someone bridges the gap.

  3. I sort of disagree with Dave H.

    First, I’m not in NASA and am really not that familiar with the space program or its industry. However, it’s obvious that other programs, like the x-prize and I’m sure other organizations, are leveraging their talent and moneys in creative ways to achieve their goals. They don’t have billions of dollars like NASA and they seem to find ways to safely (least I haven’t heard of any fatalities) to push toward their goals. And, from my view (as the public outsider) they seem to be doing better than NASA as far as taking very little and doing amazing things.

    My company leverages money and talent to do the best we can. We don’t have a large budget per se, but with our talent and creativity we make it work. It’s about prioritizing and managing expectations.

    Great article. I look forward to reading future writings.

  4. Nice Reading. Thanks.
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  5. Rob’s comments made me think that I needed to give some better examples of my beliefs about the importance of using the proper resources. One is fictional, the other factual.

    Imagine if you will…the battery maker for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers calls the JPL with bad news…they will not be able to meet the delivery date for the batteries originally specified for the twin rovers, but they just happen to have a battery that’s already certified for spaceflight in stock. NASA has a rigorous program in place to certify everything for spaceflight, and even though these batteries are “not exactly” the same, a decision to use these batteries is made. Here’s why:

    There is a very small launch window to Mars. Waiting for the correct batteries will cause the launch date to be outside the window, meaning that much valuable time will be lost waiting for the next available window.

    It’s early 2004…NASA is still reeling from the Columbia accident, and some in Congress have even questioned whether or not to continue funding the agency. Every step is critical. Spirit lands first, and everything looks good, but very soon it becomes obvious that there is a problem related to the rover’s batteries. The world waits anxiously, while rumors of yet another Hubble-esque debacle begin to swirl. Sean O’Keefe demands answers, and within a short time it is determined that the batteries installed were not the batteries specified.

    The engineers are called before Congress, and under oath they explain why the originally specified batteries were not installed.

    Millions of dollars spent have been irretrievably lost, and now Congress calls a halt to the Return to Flight effort and orders NASA to abandon the International Space Station.

    Thankfully, the above is only fiction.

    Closer to home, now.

    I own a Dodge Durango with the 4.7L engine. This engine is notorious for generating oil sludge which leads to destruction of the engine. The visible indication of sludge manifests itself as a “mayonnaise”-like accumulation beneath the oil fill cap.

    When I bought my Durango, it had the “mayonnaise” sludge. I had been using Mobil Delvac oil in my Dakota, and so I switched the Durango to it as well. Within days, the “mayonnaise” disappeared. Cause-and-effect, right?
    When my wife took the Durango in for state inspection, she had the dealer change the oil. Within a week, “mayonnaise” re-appeared. I drained the oil and replaced it with Delvac. Problem solved.

    There are many tales about the sludge destroying engines here on the Web. Yes, it’s an expensive repair, but think about this:

    What if the engine fails while my wife and son are on the highway? 65 mph, no power, no power brakes, no power steering. The consequences of an engine failure could be fatal.

    So…if my local store is out of Delvac, the required resource, should I just use standard oil knowing that the consequences could be the loss of my wife and son?

    Good engineering practice tells you that you use the right stuff and accept no substitutes.

    My Durango has 116,000 miles on it now, and the engine is just fine, with lots of oil pressure and no “mayonnaise”.

    There are certainly fields of endeavor in which not having exactly what you require is not an issue, however, engineering is not one of them.

    Engineering is heavily intertwined with understanding the laws of physics; disregarding those laws leads to no good end.

  6. The thief of the pieces of a chess game will be very happy if he pays back the pieces and a dinner (preferably where they play music that you can dance) as a form of penalty and compensation for the inconvenience.

  7. Excellent discussion all around! The chess game is a great example of applying well-defined, limited resources to accomplish a specific objective. Clearly, innovative approaches IT Governance and guiding the use of standardized enterprise best practices are key CIO challenges. Leadership capabilities and the “…courage to leverage opportunity” are being fully exercised!

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