Five Steps to Becoming a Trailblazer

Five Steps to Becoming a Trailblazer


A trailblazer is a pioneer or someone who is considered a first in their area of expertise.  As leaders, they point the way, take the risks, and change the environment.  They have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality, and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles.   


The Wright Brothers overcame obstacles of aerodynamics so that man could have wings.  Grace Hopper handled hexadecimal hurdles to make the computing machine accessible and practical for business.  And the late Steve Jobs gave us innovations putting wings on computers taking the everyday consumer to new heights. 


So how does a person become a trailblazer?  In particular, how do you blaze a trail?  Well….look it up at


Here are the steps (seriously, these are listed) you’ll find.  I add my thoughts for applying this in your leadership walk.




1.       Assess the density and type of foliage the area has growing and equip yourself with the stuff from the “Things You’ll Need” accordingly.


Trailblazers are known for being innovators.  Those people who do things that have never been done, create things that never existed, or perform in ways unimaginable.  In their Harvard Business Review article, Clayton Christensen and others in The Innovator’s DNA discuss some of the key skills that innovators have as part of their makeup.  They question status quo and challenge assumptions.  They welcome problems and gain momentum by overcoming them.  These trailblazers are also very observant, understanding the culture that they operate in, looking for customer needs, and being mindful of small details. 


Trailblazers have the personal qualities of strength, courage, and resilience causing them to be relentless in their pursuits and embracing and learning from failures or setbacks.  They are prepared so that they can perform their personal best to deliver what’s required of them.  Lou Gerstner in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance emphasizes the need for an executive to bring with him the entire arsenal of their leadership skills, maintain clear and consistent focus, and be superb at execution in order to lead change in their organizations.  Trailblazers bring everything they have to accomplish their goals.  


2.       Plan the width of the trail. If it’s a private trail, it only has to be about a foot (30 cm) to a foot and a half (46 cm) wide, just enough for a single file line of people to go through.  If it’s going to be a public trail, make it wide enough for four hikers abreast.


Many people erroneously believe that innovation and trailblazing have no place in the public sector.  This is because of how things like profit and shareholder value work to provide the motivation and imperative for change and innovation.  However, currency of the public sector is politics.  Trailblazers in the public sector need to understand the impact of this political economy and the importance of the stakeholders.  This means that matters that improve life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness motivates much of the innovation in the public sector. 


And what about bureaucracy? This requires trailblazers in the public sector to consider innovations, processes and workflow as they move down those paths least taken.  This causes them to look at bureaucracy as a path towards implementation.  Public sector trailblazers create new structures and rules to govern their pioneering concepts.  They seek ways to blaze through trails while keeping us safe, auditable, and secure. 


3.      Plan the direction of the trail. Check to see if any unmovable obstacles, such as fences, boulders, large trees, or streams will disrupt things.


I had a boss who when discussing organizational change would always say if you can’t change the people, change the people.  After a few beats, I figured out what he was saying.  You need to have the ability to find out which obstacles continue to hinder change and address it … whatever it is.  It could be people, laws, or technology challenges.  But whatever they are, they must be overcome if you are going to blaze that trail. 


4.      Cut down or flatten all trees and bushes to make the path. Leave some plants growing at the entrances if you want to make it a hidden trail.


Trailblazer Grace Hopper exemplified this as she created new languages and algorithms to use with the new digital computing machine.  With her team, she resolved problem after problem—and flattened bush after bush — until she got the results that were needed.  She was always willing to credit others for achievement and enjoyed working in the background.  She preferred the hidden trail of not always asking for permission to do something and advocated asking for forgiveness instead.   


5.      Clean up the dead bushes. Remove and rocks that could trip people.


As you blaze a trail, you can’t just walk away once you think your job is done.  You have to make sure that others can follow the path you blaze.  Nancy Barry is an innovator in banking who was quite active in the mission of eradicating poverty by empowering low income women globally.  She was selected as the Forbes Magazine 2003 Trailblazer in recognition of her accomplishments.  Barry was a pioneer in microfinancing – investing low dollar amount loans for women to help them climb above the poverty line.  Microfinancing specialized in microloans – small loans, $500 on average, to help entrepreneurs do things like buy fertilizer for a crop, payroll for an office, or raw materials for items to be resold.  Barry was an advocate of helping eradicate poverty by educating and exciting these budding trailblazers.  Her goal was not just lending money to poor struggling women, but to serve them by creating a self-sustaining economic engine that would deliver value. 




·         Watch out for poisonous plants and animals and thorny bushes.

·         Trails disrupt nature.

·         Nature preserves are government property.


There’s a saying that warns you never to pick up a snake because if you do, you can’t put it down.  As you go down the trail, be careful to maintain your values and integrity.  Picking up a snake to make your path safer always proves to be a bad idea. 


What you are doing is disruptive.  If you think that you aren’t going to “rock the boat”, forget it! However, watch out for what is sacred and should be spared.  These are things that are important to a culture and to an organization. 


Things You’ll Need


·         Hedge Clippers (for smaller bush)

·         Ax or Saw (for trees)

·         Shovel (to remove medium sized rocks and roots)


You’ll need the clippers and ax for many of the steps above, but don’t forget your shovel.  You’ll need this so that you can rely on more than your five senses to cut through the … what I meant was to shovel the ….well, maybe I should just leave it at that and end this instructive rant. 


Linda Cureton, CIO NASA


Reaching for the Stars

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

When Failure is an Option

I shared with a girlfriend, who happens to be a NASA engineer, about some lively discussions at NASA’s executive summit on how we need to balance our risk aversion in order to be more innovative.  She disagreed pointing to legacies of mission success and excellence in project execution.  I argued that good was the enemy of great and we would only get the same outcomes if we executed the same way consistent with our heritage.  Perhaps it was the sign of a very stressful week, but I found myself arguing about the curse of a long legacy of success and the blessings that failures can bring. 

Life is a lot like this.  Everywhere we look in these tough times it seems that things are so tough when we see failure all around us — jobs lost, houses in foreclosure, bankruptcies, failed marriages, and hearts broken.  But, we won’t grow as individuals unless we are willing to take risks, face disappointments, and yet maintain our resilience enough to learn and advance.

In Mental Resilience: The Power of Clarity, author Kamal Sarma states:

“To some degree, we continually search for certainty in our careers, relationships, health, and finances.  This craving for certainty stops us from living a life full of courage and freedom.  This desire of stability or certainty stops us from looking for a more satisfying career or taking chances in a new or long-term relationship and make us cling to our youth or bemoan getting older.  All this fear can rob us of our passion. “

A broken heart or a failed marriage means that we experienced joy and love.  Perhaps an engineering example would have been better for this philosophical conversation with my girlfriend.  After all, it’s much safer than love, life, and relationships. 

With the invention of the brakes, the automobile was able to get beyond the novelty and impracticality associated with this innovation.  Some folks think that the purpose of the braking system was to prevent the car from going too fast, but it actually allows the car to go faster and stop safely and higher speeds.  In looking at the risks associated with the automobile, using risk management as a learning process and not a hindrance is what enabled the critical innovation provided by the invention of the brakes.

Proper risk management is a learning process not a hindrance.  In looking at the risks associated with the speed of automobiles, inventors learned better ways to decelerate and stop.  The United Kingdom, however, looked at risk in a different way in 1865.  They outlawed the use of automobiles unless a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn preceded the vehicle.  This discouraged inventors and engineers on working on the challenge of increasing speed while maintaining safety. 

As a programmer, there were many situations where I needed a failure in my software code, just so I could get to the point of finally debugging it and solving the problem.  I needed to learn from the failure.  This doesn’t mean that we are cavalier about failure, but we perform tests, simulations, and experimentations in safe environments so that we can learn about potential failures.

A life devoid of failure lacks passion.  We never cried unless we tried.  Likewise, organizations devoid of failure or effective management of failure prevention will lack the passion and will to innovate, learn, and grow.

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO 

Women in History: Holding Up Half the Sky

NASA participated in a special event – Teaching Children to be Limitless — for Women’s History Month with Urban Zen and Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN).  I had the pleasure of participating in it.  We rotated through a series of tables answering questions from a group of school-aged children. 

There was one question that I got at nearly half the tables – do you want to go into space? The first time I got the question, my answer was, “No, I’m too old”.  Then a group, led by an 8-year old girl yelled at me irreverently, “What??? You can do ANYTHING you want to do!”  After that, my answer was YES.  There’s nothing like getting a taste of your own medicine by being yelled at by an 8-year old after you just gave them a dose of inspiration. 

When I was their age, I wanted to go into space.  But, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in space.  By the time I graduated from college, I was convinced that an overweight, nearsighted African American urban girl could never be an astronaut.  But, had I done my part, and reframed my own beliefs, perhaps, I could have been a first.

In her book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor, Rebecca Shambaugh challenges us to examine our beliefs checking them to determine if they are limiting us in any way.  She goes on to say that “…in order to reach your potential, it’s essential to acknowledge the beliefs that you hold about yourself, as well as your belief about other people and the world around you.”  Shambaugh reminds readers to examine these self-beliefs periodically.  This sassy 8-year-old reminded me that it was time to examine my own again. 

Bessie Coleman was an American aviator who became the first African American fe

male pilot and the first person African American tohold an international pilot’s license.

Picture of Bessie Coleman

 She challenged herself and the belief of others to lead the way for others. In a story about her life Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Doris Rich, states that “… from the moment Bessie decided to become a pilot nothing deterred her.”  She “ignored all the difficulties of her sex and race, her limited schooling and present occupation.”

 “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers.  We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” — Lt. William J. Powell, Founder, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs

A Chinese proverb says that “women hold up half the sky”.  It is important for NASA to inspire the next generation of all of the sky-holders — scientists, engineers, and explorers– to aim high and reach new heights for the improvement of humankind.  If we are going to do our part in holding up the sky, we have to get beyond the notion of a glass ceiling and change the self-limiting behaviors to reach these heights.  

Women in History: Counting on Women in Mathematics

One of NASA’s2011 strategic goals is to promote the things that attract students into thescience, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.  I’d like take the opportunity in Women’s HistoryMonth to talk specifically about some great contributions from some women inmathematics and perhaps to shout for joy about being a woman, a mathematician,and a part of the NASA civil servant workforce. 

Hypatia of Alexandria lived approximately during the years370-415 AD.  She was the daughter ofTheon of Alexandria who was a teacher of mathematics at the Museum ofAlexandria in Egypt.  She studied withher father and taught in the Neoplatonist school of philosophy.  Though little historical evidence existsabout her, it is believed that she wrote on mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.  She was known to dress as a scholar orteacher instead of in women’s clothing. She drove her own chariot which was not considered a norm for women’sbehavior.  As a woman who did not knowher place and one who espoused heretical teachings in astronomy regarding themotion of planets and the heavenly bodies, the Christian Bishop Cyril incited amob to riot and they attacked her and murdered her. 

Alicia Boole Stott was the daughter of George Boole(well-known for Boolean logic).  She hada special intuition that helped her visualize objects in the fourth dimensiondeveloping a special interest in four-dimensional hypercubes also known astesseracts.  As a woman who lived1860-1940, she was not afforded a formal education in mathematics.  Married with two children, her husbandrecognized her talent and encouraged her to study with othermathematicians.  Eventually she publishedseveral papers and built many models representing four-dimensional figures withcardboard and wood. 

Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852, was known as the first computer programmer.  She met Charles Babbage, the so-called Father of the Computer, and becameinterested in a concept he had for a mechanical device to compute values ofquadratic functions. She also became interested in some of his ideas of anothermachine which would use punched cards to read instructions and data to solvemathematical problems.  She had a visionthat these machines, the future computers, could go beyond mere calculating ornumber-crunching.The beautiful Ada Lovelace the first computer programmer. 

In lookingat the sketch of the lives of these women, you can see the potential that womencan offer.  This sketch illustrates theability that women have to fit in a man’s world, see in different dimensions, andsee the possibilities of things only imagined. In a study titled Women in the ITby the National Center for Women in Information Technology, it describes thespecial magic that women bring to teams in increasing diversity and enablingcreative innovation. 

I chosemathematics in college because I loved figuring things out like Alicia, Iwanted to drive my own chariot like Hypatia, and like Ada, found these thingscalled computers lacked the humanity that made them useful to most people. 

I have agirlfriend that studied physics in college. I asked her why she chose physics for a major.  She said that she really wanted to major inpsychology, but the line was quite long and went out the door.  Not wanting to brave the elements she wentinto the physics line without even knowing what physics was.  The advisors told her don’t worry; we willhelp you and tell you what it is.  Shefound her opportunities to excel in the safety and warmth of science. 

To all theyoung women thinking about what line to get in, get in a line for science,technology, engineering, or mathematics. Dear ladies, the line is short, and the opportunities are many.  When you consider our study in thesediscipline areas along with our strength — skills in communication, intuition,and curiosity, WE women become people that you can truly count on. 

LindaCureton, NASA CIO


Getting Over Your Jitters @ Twitter

With the sustained explosive growth in the use of Twitter, it seems we can’t just view it as a fad that will pass soon.   According to a study by Edison Research:

·         Awareness of Twitter has exploded from 5% of Americans 12+ in 2008 to 87% in 2010 (by comparison, Facebook’s awareness is 88%)

·         51% of active Twitter users follow companies, brands or products on social networks

It’s going to be difficult if not impossible to develop a credible and effective organizational strategy that uses Twitter until we can, as individual leaders get over our jitters about Twitter.

I just had a conversation with someone about the importance and difficulty in exemplifying the principles of Open Government but, I have to admit, I just blocked my first person on Twitter.  This made me question the sincerity of my own advice.  But, the paradox just shows the leadership challenges that surround the usage of social media in organizations.

Charlene Li, in her book Open Leadership describes the difficulty:

“It isn’t enough to be a good communicator.  You must be comfortable sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships.  Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored.  Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn.”

I drew the line with comfortable information sharing and developing closer relationships when someone (who I blocked) crossed my invisible line by wanting to become a fritter (a friend on Twitter).  While I do believe that sharing personal information can help develop relationships, I feel that true personal friendships require more than 140 characters per interaction.  Furthermore, communications in this media are only an @ away from sharing information from 2,243 of my closest friends.

Nevertheless, Twitter provides a powerful way of adding richness to conversations and interactions.  This Washington Post article by Susan Kinzie discusses usage of Twitter in higher education.  Professors are using Twitter to extend the academic conversation beyond the classroom.  Furthermore, students can be more engaged and benefit from ongoing Socratic dialog. 

Gartner analyst, Michael Maoz suggests an increase in the effective usage of Twitter in customer service.  There are many ideas developing which will spawn new tools for early adopters that will be valuable for customer service.  So, get over your jitters and watch the early adopters, there’s a strong potential for significant benefit.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Information Technology Trenz

At the NASA IT Summit, Gartner Analyst David Cearley announced that it is 1981 again and the PC era is over! What an amazing declaration.  Well, I loved David’s statement.  In 1981, I was on my first short tour at NASA.  I also met my beloved friend Stephanie and a beloved piece of technology – the IBM mainframe. 

Now, I’m not a highly regarded expert on technology trends; nor am I a world-renowned expert on information technology – I’m just a poor strugglin’ CIO just trying to get a few little procurements done and somehow get information technology to help NASA satisfy its mission better.  So, maybe I won’t talk about technology trends or maybe I shouldn’t.  But, I’m sure no one would object to a discussion about something else – maybe technology trenz!

The 3270 is back! When personal computers entered the environment, 3270’s were viewed as a thing of the past.  Pictured here is an IBM 3279. From and IBM 3279 terminal I thought I was cute because I used one.  I had special needs because I was working on graphics software.  But, now, with web-delivered application capability, we return to the old days when girls were girls, men were men, and clients were thin.  From Wikipedia:

Applications development has in many ways returned to the 3270 approach. In the 3270 era, all application functionality was provided centrally. With the advent of the PC, the idea was to invoke central systems only when absolutely unavoidable, and to do all application processing with local software on the personal computer. Now in the Web era (and with Wikis in particular), the application again is strongly centrally controlled, with only technical functionality distributed to the PC.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the comment that there is no requirement for iPADs or similar tablet devices in the workplace, I’d …well … I’d have my own iPAD.  Well, people knew better and the market is exploding.  And even now, as I gaze at my ODIN-delivered iPAD, I don’t know what I need it for, but I’m absolutely sure that I need it! CIO Update says this is the “…year of the tablet”.  But, I like to think of these things as really, really small thin 3270s. 

The Data Center is back! Now hold on.  People who used to live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  Now, with cloud computing, the Data Center isn’t limited by raised floors and glass houses.  Today’s Data Center can be accessed through web technologies in the cloud or rolled up in a trailer and moved to where it’s needed.  The new trailer park data center even brings its own environmental needs with it.  Now, floor tile pullers are replaced with trailer hitches.  In the press release Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2010 we hear:

“Newly-built data centers often opened with huge areas of white floor space, fully powered and backed by a uninterruptible power supply (UPS), water-and air-cooled and mostly empty. However, costs are actually lower if enterprises adopt a pod-based approach to data center construction and expansion. If 9,000 square feet is expected to be needed during the life of a data center, then design the site to support it, but only build what’s needed for five to seven years. Cutting operating expenses, which are a nontrivial part of the overall IT spend for most clients, frees up money to apply to other projects or investments either in IT or in the business itself.”

People are back and never left! As a young mathematician at NASA, I discovered the value of one friend named Stephanie who helped me realize my capabilities as a freshly minted programmer.  Now, with social media, technology allows us to harness the power of “friends” in ways that extend our capabilities beyond physical limitations.  Tom Soderstrom, CTO for IT at NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab gave a captivating presentation at the NASA IT Summit on technology trends.  He presented a collage of predictions from experts across the space.  What trend they all had in common was about – people.  Tom told us that:

“The mega trend that drives the other… trends is the need for people to be able to work with anyone from anywhere with any data using any device. … In the near future, IT will be redefined from “Information Technology” to “Innovating Together”, where the traditional IT organization provides the technology and the IT consumers (e.g. Missions) decide how it will be used most effectively. “

Thanks to Jonathan Pettus, CIO of NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center whose interest in information technology and history uncovered the fact that it may even be 1961 again.  He uncovered this tidbit from Wernher von Braun Weekly Notes” about the Burroughs 205 with advanced hardware and software:

“A review of the computing services performed by the decentralized digital computing centers strongly suggest that these facilities could be improved.  New products and developments in the computer field suggest also that this could be done with considerable economy to MSFC. “

Whether it’s 2011, 1981 or 1961, I think the trend that remains the same is probably people.  At least one expert believes that people and our human brains are finite and limited.  I’m glad I’m not an expert, because I believe that we the people who use IT can continue to drive these trenz ultimately and infinitely. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA


Yin and Yang Leadership

As I head into the fourth quarter of my first year as NASA CIO, I find myself in somewhat of a struggle between competing forces.  I have cried more in one month than I have in one year, but the tears are not bad tears, they are good tears actually. 

In a misguided way, we think that this leadership journey is supposed to be easy; that good leaders always have two choices – the right answers or the wrong answers; make the right decisions or make the wrong decisions; and do it with a smile and with courage like we all see in photographs and press releases.  But at the point of difficulty maybe right there in the tears and in the midst of the struggle, problems are solved…the impossible is made possible…and dreams become reality. Symbol of Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang describes opposing forces which flow in a natural way and always seek balance.  The two opposing forces flow in such a way that they become merely two aspects of a single reality.  Yin and Yang talks about extremes such as “dark” and “light”, “male” and “female”, “low” and “high”.    

From an organizational perspective, I see these opposing forces in issues like:

·         “being the best IT organization in Government” versus “just delivering service in an acceptable way”

·         “being innovative” versus “meeting expectations”

·         “delighting the customer” versus “meeting customer expectations”

·         “mission obsessed” versus “mission aligned”

In looking at these aspects of NASA’s IT strategy, folks on both sides have valid concerns.  Why should we strive to be the best when we can barely deliver email? Why should we think “out of the box” when we don’t have our box in order?  How can we delight our customers when we can’t even meet their expectations?

The management technique for bringing together such extremes and arriving at supernatural problem solving is called Force Field Analysis.  This management technique was developed by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social sciences, for diagnosing situations. The technique used a method of weighing pros and cons of a suggested plan of action. The pros and cons are called the Driving and Restraining forces.

This analysis is characterized by:

• clarifying and strengthening the “driving forces” for solution

• identifying obstacles or “restraining forces” to a solution

encouraging agreement on relative priority of factors on each side of the balance sheet

Driving forces are those forces affecting a situation that are pushing in a particular direction; they tend to initiate a change and keep it going. Examples of driving forces for implementing a plan include an identified business need, support from the leadership team or the availability of skilled resources.  Restraining forces are forces acting in opposition to and restraining the driving forces. Examples of restraining forces against implementing a plan include time pressures, lack of enthusiasm and competing demands.  Lewin says that equilibrium is reached when the sum of the driving forces equals the sum of the restraining forces. 

Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh describes how Winnie the Pooh takes similar but unconventional look at finding a solution by looking for the thing he didn’t want to find.  Here Pooh and Rabbit are trying to get home and keep ending up at a small sand-pit.  Pooh finally suggests:

“Well … we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we’d be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren’t looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

 Perhaps said in a non-Pooh way, driving forces by themselves don’t always yield a desired outcome.  Certainly, restraining forces which move you away from the outcome isn’t the place to be either.  It’s the equilibrium of the competing actions – the place where the tears often fall — where the problems get solved, where the impossible becomes possible and you can find your way home. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

No Stupid Ideas

I had a wonderful opportunity to be shadowed by Anthony who was in a leadership development program from another agency.  He and I talked a lot about innovation and the whole notion of how to get good ideas.  At the end of the conversation he said he got the feeling that I didn’t think any idea was stupid.   After I thought about it I agreed.  I told him that I think there really are no stupid ideas, just stupid people. 

Before I continue too far, I have to say that I hate using the word stupid – it’s judgmental and arrogant.   I try to limit myself to only one “stupid” per day.  And I find as I get older and learn more, I know less.  So, the whole notion of “stupid” is pretty … well… stupid sometimes.  Nevertheless, this word seemed appropriate in the context of the world of innovation and creative thinking.

Sometimes ideas that sound stupid turn out to be examples of the kind of out of the box thinking that produces amazing results.  I read a pretty interesting article on several ideas that seemed stupid, but ended up making millions of dollars.  Examples of this are: doggie goggles, antenna balls, and personalized letters to Santa.   

Sometimes ideas that initially seem to be stupid failures end up being learning opportunities that ultimately yield to amazing results.  Thomas Edison had many failed ideas before he was able to learn through trial and error what was needed to invent the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.  As George Santayana is often quoted, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Stupid people are not those who lack education or intellect.  Very intelligent people can be stupid.  Similarly, people with low intellect or education can come up with ideas that produce great results.  But most stupid people have some characteristics in common as it relates to ideas.

They don’t seek diversity.  Often stupid people will ask other stupid people if their idea is a good idea.  In other words, they seek advice from people who are just like themselves or in their own inner circle.  They also only look for opinions that confirm what they want to hear. 

They don’t care about results.  Whether it’s from being delusional, experiencing cognitive dissonance, or being overly righteous or arrogant, stupid people just want to defend their original ideas without listening to advise that could produce desired results. 

They don’t learn from mistakes.  Personal righteousness and arrogance can prevent stupid people from learning and allow them to stumble into this ditch.  In addition, very successful people can be stupid because they have so much experience in creating good results from their former good ideas.  They don’t get into the disciplined habit of learning from mistakes because they simply have not made a lot of mistakes.  They are haunted by the enemy of past successes. 

If an idea fails, that doesn’t make it a bad idea.  Likewise, if an idea is good idea, it can get botched through thoughtless implementation.  So, after giving this more thought Anthony, I still think there is no such thing as a stupid idea.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Managing Your Online Reputation

Concern about reputation is a barrier for many organizations and individuals preventing them from fully harnessing the power of Web 2.0 technologies.  Consider the Oscar Wilde quote that says:

“One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything, except a good reputation.”

So clearly having your personal reputation or your organization’s reputation blemished is a serious matter to be reckoned with.  Many organizations are struggling with how to develop policy around rules of conduct for when disgruntled employees inflict damage on their reputation.  Because of this, there’s a cottage industry of businesses that have popped up to repair what turned out to be damaged company reputations.  Here, I will speak to what you can do an individual to take responsibility to manage your own online reputation.

Perhaps you think this isn’t important to you.  Perhaps you are even unaware that this is a problem to be reckoned with.  Any Ostrich with his head in the sandexecutive or leader reading this should get their head out of the sand and wake up to the urgency that demands that we become proactive about our reputation. Furthermore, the carefree youth today may want to take an opportunity to NOT learn the hard way, by losing professional opportunities due to the apathy experienced in early life.

In an August 2009 article, New York Times reported that employers are starting to use Social Networking to check out job applicants.   The article reports the results of a June 2009 survey that Harris Interactive did on behalf of

§  Forty-five percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates

§  Eleven percent plan to use these techniques for screening

§  Industries that specialize in technology and sensitive information are most likely to screen job candidates via social networking sites or online search engines


The survey results also reported that when employers did NOT chose a candidate for a job, the reasons were most likely as follows when the potential employee:

·         Posted inappropriate photographs or information – 53%

·         Posted content about them drinking or using drugs – 44%

·         Bad-mouthed previous employer, co-workers or clients – 35%

·         Showed poor communication skills – 29%

·         Made discriminatory comments – 26%

·         Lied about qualifications – 24%

·         Shared confidential info from previous employer – 20%


You still don’t think this blog is about you? Do you? Let me bust some myths.


Myth (1): I don’t even use this social networking junk, that’s for kids.  So, I don’t have a problem.


I did a search on the name of one of my 10 favorite NASA CIOs “Chris Kemp” … the first hit? Mug shots! How does one cope with this? Well, there’s a comedy bit out there where a spouse gets caught in a compromising situation face-to-face with their spouse.  They simply insist “Baby, that wasn’t me!” Well, you can try that because it may work.  Or you can do what Chris does and use his middle initial.  There’s lots of good content about “Chris C. Kemp.”


Myth (2): Look, I am a seasoned user of this technology; I have enough sense to know what to say and what not to say?


I have a wonderful tech-savvy geezer colleague who truly understands these things.  He hooked up with the wrong “intelligent” application on a popular social networking site.  So, I sent him a message that went something like this:


Diva: “Dude? XXX movies??”

Geezer: “Huh?”


Diva:”Can you just take that stuff down?”

Geezer:”Ok I took it down, but that wasn’t me!!”


Myth (3): See, that’s why I have personal and private accounts … I keep it separate!


NY Times reported a case of a police officer who had a little fun talking trash on MySpace.  Well, that locker room banter crept into his professional life and affected the outcome of the cases he worked on.  The fact that it was a separate private account, didn’t affect his outcome professionally.


So, what’s person to do?  Here are three tips:


(1)   Defend against any possibility of bad content by overwhelming it with good content.


Use the superpowers of Web 2.0 for good.  Even though what’s out there is more or less permanent, overwhelm the bad content with intentional good content.  Use professional sites to do networking in your field.  If you wondered about the advantages of doing a professional blog, here’s one for sure.  You can also comment on other people’s blog.  Another possibility is to use micro blogging sites like Twitter to establish a professional reputation.  Be careful not to overdo it.  Too much content casts doubt about what your professional priorities are.


(2)   Actively monitor content about yourself.


You can set options in various search engines to alert you when there is new content posted with your name.  Ignorance can be bliss, but in this environment, it’s not. You need to at a minimum be aware of what is out there.


(3)   Private is private, but there is no personal.  Everything is public on the information super highway!


Many social networking sites are increasing their functionality to provide more privacy.  Leverage these capabilities.  It won’t hurt to initially be an observer on the side line before you jump in.  You can learn from others. 


Now just in case you think this blog isn’t about you, here are some final results of the Harris Interactive survey.  Eighteen percent of employers reported they have found content on social networking sites that caused them to hire the candidate:


·         Candidate’s profile provided a good feel for the candidate’s personality and fit – 50%

·         Candidate’s profile supported their professional qualifications – 39%

·         Candidate was creative – 38%

·         Candidate showed solid communication skills – 35%

·         Candidate was well-rounded – 33%

·         Candidate had a good reputation as indicated by other people who posted good references – 1%

·         Candidate received awards and accolades – 15%


Final words


·         Be professional at all times and be careful with sarcasm.  Think before you publish. 

·         Contribute and interact on a professional basis.

·         Maintain content about yourself and ensure that it is kept up-to-date.

·         Respect copyright laws, financial disclosure laws, and any policy that your employer may have.


Warren Buffet is quoted as saying that, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Start now, and build YOUR online reputation.


Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA