The Power of Yes and No

There is much power in Yes! Finding a way to Yes! is finding a pathway to life-changing experiences, to entrepreneurial successes, valuable friendships, and even to love. Yes! is powerful.

This post, however is about the enormous power of No!, as a positive and life-changing force. In fact, the older I get, the more I recognize and appreciate the importance of No! to help guide my life, and focus on excellence. Even though there are many examples, I want to focus this discussion on the power of No! in time-management, and in driving culture change.

When I started my job at NASA I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of time pressure from tag-ups, meet-and-greets, councils, and other meetings that filled my schedule. With my family still in Michigan, I decided to come to work super early and I left very late – and all I did is meet, often for 12+ hours per day. Some of these meetings were useful and necessary, and others seemed repetitive even after 2-3 weeks, with little value and purpose, but I attended all of them.

I did so until I noticed that I started falling behind on my work, that I caught myself making important decisions without enough consideration, and frankly that I did not think deeply enough. I started to feel miserable. I felt like I was “trampled by ants”, as my friend Tony England once called it (this is the man who figured out how to turn CO2 into O2 during the Apollo 13 crisis – you saw the movie). I was completely focused on small and often unimportant activities and I was living entirely reactively – and I hated it. To do my job well, I needed to manage my time proactively and learn how to use the power of No!

One day, I talked about this quandary to my administrative assistant who bravely filled in my schedule with lots of people urging her they needed to meet with me. In a discussion one morning, she told me apologetically that she can only accommodate between 15-20% of all meeting requests. I walked away from this like someone had hit me in the face. Here I was working 12+ hours mostly in meetings, and I was not even fulfilling a quarter of all requests!

After a brief moment of desperation I realized the liberating aspect of that number: no matter how many hours I spent in meeting, even with no sleep at all, there was no chance to fulfill the external demand put on me by these requests. I finally felt empowered to use the power of No! to change how I spent my day and how I constrained when I schedule meetings. I have been sticking to such hard limits since then.

For example, each day, no meeting can be scheduled before 8 am and after 5 pm without approval from me, and exceptions are rare. Furthermore, I want 2 hours of unallocated time to work actions between 8 am and 5 pm blocked on my schedule. Again, these times cannot be over-written without my approval. These constraints give me time to prepare and think through priorities and this time allows me to work proactively.

I recognize that everyone is different. I suspect that some can do more meetings and function just fine. But, this is “my marathon speed” – the way I can get work done, the way I can think, make good and thoughtful decisions and be happy – in the long run.

There is much liberating power in No! when it comes to schedule management. Use it – don’t get trampled by ants!

We rightly talk about culture change as being enabled by a new shared vision, strong values, and a team that is encouraged and empowered to make that vision a new reality. However, I believe that it takes both the power of Yes! and the power of No! to create such a major culture change. Let me explain.

I have observed many leaders who build new organizations or improve already existing organizations using the power of Yes!. Great leaders use the power or Yes!, and explain the importance of a worthy future that does not yet exist. They get the best from the team to define this new vision. Great leaders and their teams spend a lot of time and focus to talk about this new future and the underlying driving values as they gain momentum. Without that, the change in momentum is often weak and it fizzles out at every obstacle that is encountered. The power of Yes! is magical.

But, here is something really important I only learned in the past couple of years: The power of Yes! – setting a new vision and driving momentum toward it is only one critical ingredient of lasting culture change. The other one is the power of No!

As we start building this new culture, we will find behaviors and actions in our organizations that are no longer desirable or no longer acceptable. So what do we do when they pop to the surface and keep pulling us back? – with the power of No!

I believe that only if we have the courage to address and even cut bad and mis-aligned elements out of our organization do we build lasting change. Even though patience is often a virtue, we cannot be too patient addressing outdated thought-patterns, negative thinking, and sometimes toxic behaviors and power dynamics that hold us back from progress. We need to address them with the power of No!

Having guided multiple organizations through culture change and having observed many more, I am convinced that utilizing the power of No! is as important as utilizing the power of Yes! to achieve lasting success. If we are not willing to use the power of No!, we confuse our own teams about how serious we are about the intended change, and how committed we are to building the new future!

Only when we are ready to cut the mooring line that ties the ship to the shore will the ship sail towards a new destination. Putting up the sails and ringing the bell is not enough.

As we move into this near year, may we all understand better the powers of Yes! and No! in our lives, and may we get ever-more wisdom about how and when to use these powers.

Beyond the Numbers

Celebrating the Global Space Apps Community and Reflections

NASA’s 10th annual Space Apps Challenge was held in Oct. 2021 and it was the most successful such event to date. Not only was it the largest all-virtual Space Apps event, it also broke its own records for the number of local virtual events, participants, and project submissions.

Since its inception in 2012, Space Apps has engaged over 178,000 people from across 162 countries and territories. But Space Apps is so much more than just the numbers.

In a recent blog post, I reflected on my time here at NASA, including the lessons I’ve learned. Two of those lessons were related to understanding how to enable true diversity and inclusion and recognizing and combating “group-think,” where individual voices are not heard. The Space Apps Challenge is an opportunity for us to participate in creating an environment that welcomes diversity, promotes inclusion, and proactively fosters disparate thought. This challenge helps remove walls by enabling participants across the world to form teams and work together to find solutions to some of Earth’s most pressing problems.

Our goal is for the next generation of explorers to not only learn about NASA’s data, but to share in the process of using that knowledge – to create and apply that data to solutions to real-world concerns. The continuous uptick in global participation in this challenge exemplifies our commitment to creating opportunities that are accessible and equitable to all.

Here are a few tangible ways Space Apps has impacted communities globally:

Open Innovation

Space Apps is a virtual launch pad for ideas to take shape in specific locations around the world. Local Leads – the volunteers who host Space Apps events in their local communities – sometimes use Space Apps as a platform to launch accelerators, enrich educational curriculum, and create businesses.

Space Apps serves as the inflection point for innovators worldwide to create, innovate, and develop ideas using open data and resources from NASA and our space agency partners. Open innovation concepts have allowed some participants to translate ideas generated during a challenge into physical products and companies. A Local Lead in Guatemala has been working with the Space Apps community to cultivate interest in space-related opportunities. The vision is to support projects beyond the Space Apps challenge weekend to develop the initial project ideas into meaningful solutions.

This open innovation only happens because our data is openly accessible. As we move from Open Data to an Open Science paradigm, the toolset for open innovation will dramatically increase and we will empower more teams to have positive impacts on their own communities, no matter where they are worldwide.

Skill Building

The Space Apps challenge is also like an on-the-job training environment, as it provides opportunities for participants to hone and learn new skills. The challenge environment not only encourages learning, but helps participants adopt a growth mindset. Whether it be through exploring scientific subject matter, defining team roles, learning a new skill, or addressing obstacles that may arise during the challenge, the Space Apps experience promotes a culture of collaboration, innovation, and teamwork – key skill sets in today’s modern workforce and classrooms. We’ve received reports that some people have even integrated Space Apps into their science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) curriculums.

Diversity & Inclusion

The Space Apps motto, there’s always space for one more, underpins this endeavor’s intentional effort to be inclusive. We know that at the heart of true innovation, there tends to be a diverse team whose members are fully included into the decision and implementation process. This is why the virtual bootcamp included a YouTube video playlist dedicated to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and featured videos such as “Building a Diverse Team is the ‘Secret Sauce’ to Success.” The playlist was devoted solely to highlighting the link between innovation and diversity and provided advice to participants on how to create and work in teams with different skills sets and backgrounds. In 2021 alone, nearly 30,000 people from around the world participated in the challenge and as the program grows it continues to attract participants that range in experience from students to seasoned professionals, from aspiring engineers to seasoned, award-winning technologists, and from citizen scientists to globally-recognized subject matter experts.

As part of our effort to ensure that the Space Apps community reflects the diversity that exists globally – including race and ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic status, and natural talents, skillsets, and interests – the challenges presented by Space Apps cover a wide variety of interests and levels of experience.A great example of this purposeful intentionality took place in Bangladesh. To ensure that women were not excluded, the Local Lead in Bangladesh required that all local teams include at least one woman. As a result, 90% of all teams in Bangladesh had at least one woman participating.

The challenges themselves were crafted in a way to attract teams that represent a variety of skill sets, ranging from media, art, storytelling, computer science, engineering, and a host of other fields. This intentionality encourages diverse individuals to come together around a shared passion for creative problem solving.

The Future of Space Apps

What started as an exploratory effort in 2012 is now a thriving global community built over the course of 10 years. The sustained growth of Space Apps during this time illustrates that this challenge has and will continue to contribute to the advancement of science and will empower the next generation of space professionals. I am committed to working to continuously broaden and improve this annual event to provide a richer, more accessible, and impactful experience for years to come. Looking ahead, I hope that Space Apps serves as a model for how we as a world approach problem solving.

And finally, I want to thank one more time all leaders within NASA and our partner agencies, the local Leads, and – in particular – all Space Apps participants worldwide. I absolutely love this program and I cannot wait for future implementations of this amazing innovation and engagement tool.

Connect with the #SpaceApps community!

Instagram: @nasa_spaceapps Twitter: @SpaceApps Facebook: @spaceappschallenge