I just came back from a Mother’s Day cruise with Mom. While there, I unexpectedly ran into a former colleague from an old job. Mercifully, we didn’t talk about work; we talked about shooting craps in the casino. She wanted me to teach her and her friend to play. I thought, this is going to be a challenge – her technical specialty was in IT security and her friend was an attorney. How are these two obviously risk-averse individuals going to handle the perilous world of gambling? On a much larger and complex scale, it sounds like the challenges we face as an agency.
There couldn’t be a better time to work for NASA than to witness history being made as we plan what life will be like for humans beyond low Earth orbit. As quiet as it’s kept, NASA is a bureaucratic agency. But, don’t get me wrong, being bureaucratic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here’s why.
Bureaucracy was a positive construct for large complex organizations that needed to have high levels of mission success and operate as efficiently as possible. Bureaucracy cares about ensuring safety, eliminating risk to human life, and having stewardship over expensive resources and capital. The processes and procedures in place in a bureaucracy are well-suited for tasks and activities too large and complex for any one person to know. And it also distributes authority so that one person isn’t the sole decision-maker. The foundation of our government was built on this principal. We want a government that is for the people, we want to be protected as efficiently as we can, and we want separation of powers so that no one person can be king.
Yet, the downside of bureaucracy becomes apparent as we attempt to lean forward in innovative ways. It is difficult to do things where there are no processes defined, new roles and responsibilities are needed, and the increase in risk is demanded. Though creating an innovative bureaucracy seems at one extreme an oxymoron and at the other an over-simplification of what needs to be done it MUST to be done through innovating processes and procedures, defining new roles and responsibilities, and developing new technology and capabilities.
I guess I should report how my little bureaucrats did at the crap table. First, we simulated actual game playing with a craps application on the laptop. In a safe environment, we learned the rules – enough of them anyway – though the attorney wanted to know all of them. We learned how to place bets, but the computer game was a little quirky in letting you accidently bet someone else’s money. The IT security guru had to think that through a bit then realized with actual money, there were security cameras all over the casino and the dealers were watchful.
When it was time to actually play, the risk would be limited to $200, but the fun would be greater than that. They figured out how to follow their intuition and take action on what they believed. The value of a team of people around the table with the same mission and focus was something immeasurable yet invaluable. Crapping out wasn’t so bad if you earned money in the process. The sweetest words of the evening were “ladies, pick up your winnings”. They loved every second of it and smiled brightly as they reached for their chips.
In due time, NASA will lean forward with plans for the future. The strength of our bureaucracy will be leveraged by the love of what we do and why we do it. Yeah, there will need to be some chips on the table and we might crap out on a few rolls, but it won’t be so bad if we learn in the process and keep the losses acceptable. It’s indeed a pleasure to be here as NASA reaches for the stars.
Linda Cureton, CIO NASA