Stifling Dissent

I’ve got a video that you need to watch, but first I need to explain why you need to watch it and what lesson I hope you will take away.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said that NASA – and specifically the Space Shuttle Program – stifled dissenting opinions which might have prevented the accident.  Particularly the action was pointed toward the Mission Management Team.  As the new Deputy Program Manager, I was assigned the task of restructuring the MMT and providing means for listening to dissent.  Somewhere along the way I acquired the informal title of ‘culture change leader’.  I took this to heart and changing the culture to be more welcoming to alternate or dissenting opinions was a task that took a lot of my time and attention.

During the long days of returning the space shuttle to flight the question frequently came up as to how we were doing changing the culture.   My answer, as honest as I could make it, was that we were making progress, making changes, improving the situation, but that changing the culture was hard and we had a long way to go.

Periodically reports came from various sources that NASA people did not feel safe or welcomed in stating dissent or alternate recommendations.  This caused a lot of angst among NASA leadership who felt that they were doing everything possible to change the culture and saw progress being made.  NASA is a large and diverse organization and it is obviously difficult to winnow out all the old culture in all the niches around the agency.  After all, the focus was on the shuttle program and especially the MMT.  It should only be expected that parts of the organization far afield might be lagging behind.

Personally, I was heartened by a lot of the change which I was observing.  But it was still hard to draw out introverted engineers who are by their nature conflict averse.  Formal settings tend to put sociological pressure on low-ranking folks to keep quiet, so we tried to develop informal settings; ask more questions, listen more..

Still, it is hard to tell how effective the change effort has been.  Even though I personally try to solicit information from a variety of folks in a variety of places and ways, the reports were generally that alternate opinions are welcomed, dissent is accepted and evaluated, and we are doing better than ever.

But the anonymous polls and internet feed back says there is still a lot of work to be done.

Recently I had a couple of events which affected my thinking on this.  I have been out of the Shuttle Program manager job for almost a year now and a trusted coworker just a week ago told me that people in his organization had been prevented from giving me important alternative choices for some program choices that occurred a couple of years ago.  This was staggering. It was happening right in front of me and I was totally unaware that people – who I trusted, who I hoped would trust me – kept their lips sealed because somebody in their middle management made it clear to them that speaking up would not be good.


About two weeks ago an activity that Mike Coats started at JSC had an all day report out period.  The Inclusion and Innovation Council was to propose ways to improve innovation at NASA.  Various teams reported out, including one team of young employees who has the task to talk about the barriers to innovation at NASA — specifically at JSC.

The video attached was their result.  I found it extraordinarily funny and not at all funny.  These young people have obviously found themselves in situations RECENTLY in which managers at various levels applied sociological and psychological pressures to keep them from bringing ideas forward.

I am convinced that if we asked the managers who were the models for this little morality play whether they stifled dissent or welcomed alternate opinions, they would respond that they were welcoming and encouraging.  Probably because they have that self image.

But actual behavior, not inaccurate self perception, is what we really need. 

So now, watch the video, then come back and lets talk about what I think we really need to do about it:

Are you done with it?  Maybe you should go back and watch it a couple of times.  I did.

I feel like the early civil right pioneers must feel; the overt bad behavior is gone underground.  People say the right things in public discussion of how they should act, then behave in the bad old ways in small or private settings.

Since these behaviors are still being practiced at NASA, here is what I believe managers need to do

1.  Break out of the sandbox.  Even if it is not your area, the agency needs the best ideas to succeed in our goals.  If you have subordinates who have ideas for improving other areas, it is important to get those ideas into the open where they can compete in the marketplace of ideas, or at least get a technical review.

2.  If subordinate has an idea that has been tried before and didn’t work, consider that times may have changed and it might work now or with improvements that you know of.  In the final extremity, your subordinate needs more than the curt dismissal that its been tried before and didn’t work – you need to explain it to them.

3. Managers at all levels need to provide safe places and times for interaction that skips levels in the chain of command. 


Well, that is enough to start with.  Looks like we still have a long way to go and the first step is to know that you still have a problem.


41 thoughts on “Stifling Dissent”

  1. Bravo Sir, Bravo!

    Should you ever make it to the area of Chatsworth, CA, I’ll run you through our contribution.

    Warmest regards,


  2. I think there is one point that is missing from this VERY insightful blog: Alternative ideas are not necessarily dissent. I would argue they are rarely dissent. They are ideas, thoughts, concepts that someone thinks might work.

    What the managers in this video and in real life don’t consider is that people are passionate about their own ideas and that needs to be recognized, and can be very powerful if taken advantage of.

    This may be a dramatic example, but think of it this way:

    Ideas are like newborns of the mind. The person that comes up with the idea thinks that their “baby” is the smartest, most amazing thing in the world. In our culture, people don’t walk up to another person’s newborn and say–wow, I don’t think this child is going to amount to much. No–they give lots of compliments, wish the person luck, and maybe offer some unsolicited advice. Anyone who behaves contrary to this ritual in our culture would be considered insensitive.

    So in the workplace, when someone gives an idea, take a different perspective. Not all children are gifted, and not all ideas are brilliant or even good, but we welcome them all to this world. If the person giving the ideas is provided encouragement to keep thinking, they may come back with another idea the agency needs to get over a tough challenge. If they get the impression that their brainchild is not welcome or respected, they may not bring other ideas, perhaps critical ideas, to the table.

    I once read a book called “Ideas Are Free.” In this book, the author explains that the open exchange and consideration of ideas, large and small, are not only good for morale, but save time and often millions of dollars. Front-line employees see a perspective that managers do not and can create solutions that are much less complex because they understand the existing process.

    Thanks for posting this blog. Hope managers are listening to your words of wisdom.

  3. Its frequently still that way at KSC too — especially in the Constellation program where the “there’s no requirement for that” mantra is used as an all-purpose idea killer.

    Bless you and thank you for sharing that with us and for you own added insights and recommendations.

  4. Unfortunately compared to the shuttle program, the condescending nature to dissension is still rampant in the Constellation program, and this is what I hear from people working in the office itself. I hope someone from the other side of the aisle would look into it, because regardless of how safe the launch vehicle is bombastic management style is dangerous. I truly wish it were not true, however I have heard too much to ignore.

  5. Bravo! This video sums up why I *hate* working with JSC. It is all about parochialism – not about the good idea.

    JSC – do you realize how silly you look? You should take what Mr. Hale is saying to heart.

  6. Dear Wayne:
    I want to thank you and commend you for this posting. It is good to hear finally from someone in senior NASA management acknowledging that things are not quite right with the agency culture, instead of trying to give some management speak about all the wonderful things that management is doing.
    I have been somewhat “outspoken” that NASA leadership needs to pay more attention to the culture issues and specially the disparity across the various centers. (Check out my letter to the editor for Space News which was published in the January 5, 2009 issue, and if you still have access to the Q&A with the administrator, check out the question I had posted for Dr. Mike Griffin around mid April 2008. In his answer, Dr. Griffin declared me to be “wrong” – in various e-mail exchanges with him later on the subject with cc to many members of the NASA senior leadership team, it became very clear that I was right and he was given incorrect information by senior members of his staff. Instead of acknowledging his “mistake”, I got chastised by him for not going through proper management channels!)From my perspective I was only being honest and expressing the reality as I see it, but it became very clear to me that all levels of senior NASA management perceived me as nothing but a “trouble monger”. I am a very hardworking NASA employee who is well respected in the technical community in his area of expertise and is considered to be a good leader by the employees he supervises. I can very much empathize with the video – clearly the NASA culture is that you can’t get “ahead” unless you tow the party line. I for one prefer my integrity over any career advancement, and have accepted that I have to pay a price for the choices I make. It is unfortunate but the NASA culture is such that one has to make such a choice!

    Now that it has come to your attention that things were being withheld from you, it might be worthwhile for you to do some introspection and give thought to why this was the case and how you could have prevented it. For instance, did you ask the managers who reported to you to do a 360 degree feedback and did you then look at the results and discuss these with the managers. If that was done, it would have become apparent to you that these people are not trusted by their employees, and then you could have set correction processes in place. Are you really as good a “people leader” as who would like to think yourself to be? What actions on your part helped create a culture such that the employees could not come to you directly with their concerns and let you know that middle management was preventing them from getting alternate perspective to you?. This introspection might be helpful for you to share with current NASA leadership so that they might learn from your experience. There is a tremendous amount of data available through various NASA surveys which shows that the people do not trust senior leadership. All that data is of no use unless someone is willing to act on it in sincerity rather than just take actions to check a box and provide “whitewash”.

    I do wish you godspeed in your efforts and have the sincere hope that such efforts will ultimately lead to an improved culture at the agency as a whole. A culture where open and honest discussions are respected, and disagreement is not labeled as insubordination. A culture where one does not have to choose between doing what is right and what is best for their career advancement!

    Sanjay Garg

  7. Mr. Hale,

    I encountered this sort of “management” when I worked at JSC in-between the two shuttle tragedies. The width of its extent (albeit not 100%) in some part contributed to my moving on to another career.

    As others have posted on another blog in less polite terms, that this problem’s continuing existence caught you by surprise is a symptom of the problem. Regardless, thank you very much for posting this; hopefully doing so will help to chip away at the bureaucratic mortar that is paralyzing the agency.

    All at NASA (and in gov’t, and in any large organization) should watch this video, and they should also read Richard Feynman’s description of his time on the Challenger Commission in his “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” to have a look at the nature of self-delusion in a technical organization. In Murray & Cox’s “Apollo: The Race to the Moon” they will find a sense of what well-executed management feels like when the task at hand isn’t just “a job.”


  8. I’ve seen this up front and personal,

    its a functin of bureaucracy and also inexperienced
    management. Most of these people have never done a
    spacecraft but they know the process and know they have
    to protet their little zone, so, anything that disturbs the
    process threatens the one thing they do know: Paper

    NASA is the worst because it’s so obviously wrong.

  9. Great blog as usual. I applaud the folks who made the video and you also for sharing it. I have a stack of good idea presentations(reusable Lunar Lander, Propellant transfer module, Virtual Training world for MOD to name a few) that have been shot down over the years.

  10. Dear Mr. Hale,
    If you think new ideas coming from inside NASA are being stifled. You should trying bringing a new idea in from the outside.

    The ususal response, stone cold silence.

    I have been to several NASA events which billed as looking for new ideas, which many ideas were generated in the room none of which made it to the offical notes of the meeting. One meeting the legislative affairs people showed up and appointed themselves note takers to assure that no new ideas would emerge from the meeting.

    NASA is not just stifling new ideas it is actively hostile to them.

  11. Dear Mr. Hale,

    Thank you for confirming and bringing to the fore what I found to be the case.

    I have had people flat out tell me that they have been told by their management not to share data with me. I have been told directly that the management at one center has instructed them not to share data with another center. And I have seen prominent program managers, even the program manager of what is perhaps the biggest program in the agency, accept that lack of information.

    This is INEXCUSABLE.

    The communication problems at NASA are, in my opinion, the worst problem that NASA faces. However, behavior is the way it is for a reason. I believe that, among others, there are three reasons for this behavior:

    1) NASA generally punishes people who share data
    –When sharing data with another organization in NASA, they are not your friends and they will gleefully point out errors. We reward those who find errors no matter how they point them out–this is space flight hardware, after all, and errors are disastrous.
    –This is nothing, though, when compared with sharing data with HQ. “The idiots at HQ” (I am one of those idiots) “can’t possibly understand the technical data well enough to make the right decision, so don’t share it with them–they can only understand enough of it to understand that there’s a problem, and problems are bad”
    2) Our data is always preliminary. We only make things final when we absolutely have to. People accept this reasoning.
    3) our culture rewards those who have held data close to their chests.
    –There is a certain amount of prestige in being an SME. If you let everybody know what you know, then it’s not special any more, is it?

    Unfortunately, the reasons are fairly closely aligned to our culture. Culture change is hard. People do these things for good reasons–we need to change the motivations behind those behaviors or the behavior has no chance of changing.

    We should share data unless there’s a reason not to (and find ways to work around those reasons when they’re there), not share ONLY when there is a reason.

    There are a lot more examples of this around the agency, Mr. Hale. It happens not only every day, but every minute of every day. I have strong documentation of it. This sort of behavior needs to stop.

    Thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

  12. Thanks for posting this. The video is a close match to my experience working for JPL.

    Now that I supervising people myself I make sure that I make an effort to hear people’s new ideas. Often the ideas are bad (if good ideas were easy to come by they wouldn’t be worth so much), but I make sure I can explain to the person why the idea is flawed. And I have learned much more about the designs I work on by being able to explain why certain things are a certain way… and in the past year, one of those wrong ideas from someone thinking outside of their discipline was iterated into a correct idea that had a tremendously positive effect on the design we were working on. Moreover, I am starting to get funding to develop the idea for other missions as well.

    When I came up through the system I had to deal with a lot of hooey like in the video you post… this sort of treatment is the rule rather than the exception at JPL. Most people who get through that system feel that they paid their dues and that they’re going to make the next guy pay their dues too. I instead think that now that I have a little bit of authority, I can do my part to reduce the misery for those who follow me.

  13. The old culture is alive and well at Mission Operations at JSC. When I offered an alternative course of action, my supervisor said I was being unprofessional and that my whole group should always agree with him because he is the boss. Some managers say that they are open to other’s opinions, but if it means changing their mind about something, forget it.

  14. I recently finished reading the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” which I think may be directly applicable to this problem. A Crucial Conversation is defined as one that is important, opinionated, and emotional. We certainly have such conversations at NASA! When the conversation becomes unsafe, people stop contributing and the free-flow of information stops. I recommend this book to anyone interested in improving their communication skills.

  15. Wayne,

    Coming on the heels of Remembrance Day, this is quite a salient expose’ of what still appears to be a rotten undercurrent.

    What does it take…apparently, wreckage, graves, and melted helmets are insufficient?

  16. This is scary…and RIGHT ONE. NASA is very weak on wanting creative thinking and innovation. It is not encouraged…and NOT valued. NASA inherently wants more turn-the-crank managers… and doesn’t want/seek promoting the more out-front/creative thinkers. It has been VERY troubling and discouraging.

    I cringe watching this video because it is soooooooooo real. No wonder NASA has trouble hiring as compared to Google, and the New Space companies.

  17. Well, here’s some dissent from the comments so far …

    I honestly don’t see the problem in this case. If NASA were to open up the organization to the point of allowing any one person to comment on / contribute to any other group of the entire organization, directly and bypassing any hierarchy, and expect that group then to have to take the time to analyze and respond to that, the entire organization would shudder to a halt. It just turns into a gigantic fractal of recursive navel gazing!

    Now, if you have a mechanism that allows dissent/comments/contributions to flow through the organization with a little bit of hierarchy to do some filtering, so you don’t light up the whole managerial chain with every single “idea”, then I think you’ve made a reasonable effort.

    Finally, I should point out that I’m not a NASA-insider, just a fan looking in from the outside.

    Thank Mr. Hale for your wonderful blog! I hope someday you’ll collect them and publish them as a book.

  18. Wayne,

    I think you can see that most of the comments here point out a similar attitude from around the agency. They also seem to agree that this is a bad thing for NASA. I think that was your point.

    What can we do about it?

    What will YOU do about it?

    I tried and tried to work with Constellation, to bring in a new technology that has the potential to revolutionize the way that we do design. Constellation beat the care out of me: I simply no longer care if Constellation succeeds or fails. I know that I did my level best to help them, but, in the end, JSC knows best, and told me so in no uncertain terms.

    The question I ask myself in regards to that situation is: why should I believe that JSC knows best when two Shuttles have been lost because JSC management couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate?

    I’ve given my professional life so far to this agency, and been repayed with being yelled at for trying to help.

  19. So I don’t recognize the scenario in the film. I enjoy my work as contractor at JSC and have had several ideas that are flying right now. I will say that civil service often have striking deficiencies in technical competance and often exhibit “can’t do” attitudes.

  20. I have to agree about the issues being rampant in Constellation.
    I’ve seen more stupidity excercised by the Constellation program
    office in one day then i’ve seen in all of DoD in a year, and
    trust me, I’ve seen a lot of stupidity there.

    Seriously Mr Hale, how many Nasa Managers have read the
    Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, or the
    Vest Report on Challenger?

    NASA is full of very smart people but it’s culture is not set up
    for learning.

  21. Standard practice in the private sector. Bosses don’t want to admit their product is broken & don’t give subordinates the benefit of the doubt. Everyone spends 1/2 their time working around problems which don’t officially exist.

    People think their government is some kind of divine entity which doesn’t function like a private company, but it really is just another private company with the same people running it as any private company.

  22. Keep in mind it’s not necessarily manager/subordinate impediments to innovation. In my experience it’s as least as likely to be grunt-to-grunt problems that cause the problem, everything from simple differences of opinion to competition for promotion/recognition, to blatant back-stabbing.

  23. Well, but wait a minute. Who funds these great new ideas and who takes the schedule hit for requirements changes?

    If someone finds a problem that raises a safety-of-flight issue, then certainly, changes must be made. If management is afflicted with a “get-there-itis” bug, however, and doesn’t want to hear about potential problems, you have a cultural problem that might require draconian measures to fix.

    But if someone comes up with a nice-to-have idea or goes off on his own and redesigns a part, that’s another matter. At some point management must draw the line and say, yes that’s a good idea but what we’re doing will work and we’re not going to change it. You wouldn’t want to requalify a part because someone was able to design a half-dozen rivets out of it.

    It’s funny, though, how the right-out-in-plain-sight problems are the most difficult to see and fix. In such cases, no amount of cultural change is going to guarantee their being found.

  24. This video may provide some explanation why, despite the appreciation and trust of several NASA employees (NOT contractors), we find it so difficult to making us “visible” through our simulator. Some NASA people have really appreciated and were suitably stunned with what we’ve achieved without NASA’s proactive help, but whatever we did, it seems that we never moved past the “tapping on the shoulder” stage.

    Pity – imagine what we could do WITH NASA’s cooperation 🙂


  25. I think the problems at NASA JSC stem from two causes: First that it is a typical civilian government agency and second that being in the Deep South and in Texas, has a lot of cultural traits from its locale.

    Much of what NASA does in manned space is socialism. There government often designs and fabricates space vehicles. The reasons for this are found in the history of the organization. The original Space Task Group was an extension of NASA Langley’s style of performing aeronautical research, where it would modify aircraft in-house and flight test them to prove new technologies. At Huntsville, the style was inherited from the Ordinance Division of the German army, imported by the managers and engineers from Peenemuende. But this was already very complementary to the ‘arsenal system’ already in place by the US Army back then, where the manufacture of munitions was not trusted to contractors. The Peenemuende group also had an organizational memory where contractors would in their case often fail to deliver on promises.

    The downside of this is that American aerospace contractors have a much better track record of success and nowadays the technology in industry in many instances far exceeds that at NASA. NASA appears more amateurish by comparison. Industry is far more flexible and adaptible in the development of flight vehicles than the government. The military procurement agencies already realize this and take a procurer approach to spacecraft design, rather than a developer approach.

    The other reason is that of its corporate culture. Houston is a very conservative place, steeped in a Deep South tradition where authority is not viewed as approachable or with skepticism, but with reverence. Managers, school teachers, government officials, and other community leaders in this locale are not used to subordinates speaking up or taking initiative. People are expected to be submissive and compliant (consider Nick Nolte’s character in the moview “North Dallas Forty”). This runs contrary to modern concepts of corporate governance, but one could argue that this was the creation of more liberal baby boomers once they reached leadership positions (a good case in point is the influence of Katherine McKinnon of the University of Michigan Law School on corporate policies regarding sexual harassment).

    By contrast, the traditional Deep South way is for trouble to flow downhill, and for leaders to be unaccountable, free to do as they please. All too often, as when one gets a bunch of ‘good ole boys’ together, leaders go outside the system’s channels so that one hand washes the other. This gives rise to an autocratic corporate culture in the manned space community in Houston – “my way or the highway.”

    Reform should come, but from a re-scoping of the mission of NASA and by reforming the corporate culture.

  26. (It may not be immediately clear, but this is my way of agreeing.)
    It’s impossible to entirely remove the prisoner’s dilemma that causes lower level managers to make rational self-interested decisions that collectively imperil the whole enterprise, decisions which top management would never approve – if they knew the whole story. (But much can be done.)

    This is why the extraordinarily expensive shells of Nuclear Power Stations have been finished with such severe flaws they had to be immediately demolished – it made sense for many low level managers to fake some x-rays, each, re their selfish interests. It made no sense for the company, or top level management to have so much cheating happen that the project and company would inevitably perish together.

    Just by itself, the avowed and sincere interest of top management in doing things right can’t remove this prisoner’s dilemma, and doesn’t.

    Impossible means impossible. Exhortations won’t do it. Incentives won’t do it. Meetings won’t do it. Personnel selection and promotion won’t do it. Evolution has had a long time to prepare us to do what is in our own interest despite everyone surrounding us, both consciously and unconsciously. All obvious solutions have a big handicap: Natural Selection has seen all of those, most of them from the time of Homo Erectus, and has had plenty of time to adapt.

    But you can change the game – and you’ve advocated some of what’s necessary. You can make the self-interest (and more important, neutrality) of the little fish count.

    It has to be possible for the smaller fish to circumvent middle managers easily, anonymously and without risk (all those three.) AND the little fish have to be firmly told that the interests of middle managers and top managers are often or usually OPPOSED. This possibility rarely occurs to the little fish, in my experience – who often have never heard of a prisoner’s dilemmas or don’t understand them, or haven’t taken the lesson to heart. They almost uniformly assume that their immediate boss is reflecting management interest in general; yet too often, and often tragically, that’s just bad logic.

    The biggest incentive the little guys could possibly have to speak up, aside from their own safety, is to KNOW that management levels almost NEVER have the precisely the same interests, concerns or goals. Therefore, they just might find an eager hearing, if they can kick the information far enough upstairs.

    It’s also possible to exploit prisoner’s dilemmas by starting (very expensive) enforcement and accountability locally (so that everyone understands that if they’re the first to cut a corner now, they will almost certainly be caught and be alone in the dock to boot) and then slowly expanding that area of extreme accountability. (As the original area of focus requires less concentrated tracking and most resources can be redeployed from that small area to a new small area.) Eventually the whole entire enterprise can be put under this new umbrella, with a genuinely altered culture. But it takes time, and the odd step backward along the way.

    Great post, if I haven’t said so – very heartening to read. (Sorry to bury the lead.) As someone who read of the near booster burn-through of a seal before the first shuttle disaster; and knew within an hour from the video replays that’s what had happened, again, I’ve had few reasons to feel entirely enthusiastic about NASA, since, but this blog is a big one.

    These days one of my writing projects is a philosophical overview of software flaws – viewed from a broad history-of-technology perspective, and concentrating on what I’ve termed “barriers to observation”; so I couldn’t resist dropping a comment.
    Thanks again.

    PS – That anonymity should always be convertible – that is, the person speaking up anonymously should be able to later claim (with proven priority) their contribution later should they choose to do so. (Not technically difficult to do, just rarely done.)

  27. A couple of comments.
    1. Bravo Wayne Hale. Courageous step. And what an innovative way to try and get a controversial thought out for comment–use a Blog.
    2. I think we are battling ‘human nature’, not just a culture at JSC or NASA. When I reflect on history, all large and established government organizations, unions, large corporations that are not brand new, etc, I see a pattern that tells me human nature is at work. We become risk adverse, we embrace how we have done it before, we seek process over outcome, we find protection and security in the chain of command. These thoughts stifle new ideas and reflect the maturation of well established organizations and which become bureaucracies as they get older. The pattern repeats throughout
    3. It seems only crisis–war, major incident, or cultural failure–and brand new technologies where no one has done it before–Apple, Google, early NASA with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo–wake us up and demand change. I observe that brand new organizations embrace innovation, flat organizations, accept risk, and work toward the common goal with zeal and passion. Then when the technologies and organizations mature, they become bureaucratic, risk adverse, and process/paper driven. “We don’t have a requirement for that”,
    “We can’t afford it”, “That is not our job”, become the mantras of the leadership who have done it this way for years.

    So I don’t have the answers to solve this, but a hard look at human nature to discover fundamental causes and attempt to lead to new effective leadership changes, is worth some serious study, research efforts, and management training.

    Again, well done Wayne Hale.
    Frank Buzzard
    Space Engineering Consulting, Inc
    6045 Old Reliance Rd
    Bryan, TX 77808
    281 543 4527 cell
    979 778 5641 home

  28. Wayne,

    Thank you for not posting my previous comments, as they are irrelevant. What I see in the video is not wanton neglect, it’s more a reflection of “the way we do business”.

    The scenes depicted could have just as easily been from the engineering departments at GM, Ford, Chrysler, Westinghouse, General Electric, and on and on. Yes, you may have a better idea, but that’s not the way we do business here. That’s the underlying message.

    The best part about it is that it’s nothing new. Read the history of Nikola Tesla and the battle between his alternating current and Edison’s direct current. In the aviation world, the Wright brothers lost the battle of ailerons vs. wing warping due to an inability to accept that their way was not the best way.

    NASA has to not appear to be wasting the taxpayer’s money, or else the allocation will be reduced. GM has to appear to not be wasting the shareholder’s money, or else Wall Street will take a dim view of the company, and its shares will lose value.

    What happens in the real world is that innovators are either crushed or they become entrepreneurs, carrying their ideas forward. The marketplace is chock full of ideas that had their genesis at some large company that couldn’t be bothered with developing it because it didn’t fit their business model. Enough said…

    I noticed that Keith Cowing’s NASAWatch posting has generated a lot of postings. Some posters, who apparently know you much better than I, speak about the “evil Wayne” and the “good Wayne”.
    I can’t comment beyond the lasting impression you’ve left amongst some of your colleagues.
    Some, however, have given you credit for trying to change yourself, and for that, you deserve a pat on the back.
    Think of yourself as a teacher, and everything you do, every interaction, leaves a lasting impression on your students.

    Someone pointed out that the depicted mindset does not exist in either the ISS or Shuttle programs.
    There is still hope…

  29. Oh, but that’s just a common social problem. Once an argument flow direction is stablished, that direction dictates the position of each party, even when-after the background of knowledge receives important updates. A manager that hears from below ‘why don’t we’ and from aside/above ‘we cannot’ too often –for legitimate reasons or not–, will develop faith in the expected outcome and fear of showing as naive for trying the other option. You see it everywhere, from huge corporations to families to internet forum moderation.

    Usually it’s solved by reverting the flow with minor, easy to agree things; by letting a third party do the work of highlighting the knowledge updates and the flaws, so there’s no emotional involvement; and getting people out of a dialectic level they aren’t really used to –and they are unlikely to be proficient at, no matter how intelligent they are in other areas.

    It also helps to identify the speech style of each side and adjust the dialogue to it, to ensure that the information gets clearly through their idiolect. Also closed circuits of opinion need to be surfaced somehow, before too much self-feedback sends those groups so far away that they become detached beyond all negotiation paths.

  30. Things like this happen all the time, whether it’s CS vs contractor or contractor vs contractor. Management has its own agenda and a subordinate will get in line and voice a management approved opinion or they’ll be pushed off to where they won’t get the chance to voice an opinion anymore.

    It isn’t just NASA, it’s all large corporations.

  31. Holy smokes!!!! Yes, I saw that. I saw that almost every day of my old job… it’s part of why I left! Every change I fought for had to go through it seemed like ten layers of bureaucracy, and “Where’s the requirement?”

    And the contractor I worked for insisted on one corporate voice…

  32. It’s not just at JSC! There is way too much parochialism, too many layers of do-nothing management, managers acting like bully’s and short sited bureaucratic road blocks. As the video demonstrated, one bad experience taints a young employees entire career at NASA. If she had stayed, she would not have made a similar *mistake* again, and would have turned into a oppressor of others someday.

    What else should be added to the list of what managers need to do: Manage your subordinate managers. They are your employees, not your friends. When you find evidence of the suppression of ideas, get rid of the offender instead of just *talking to them* about it. Stop the cycle!

  33. I didn't think it was fair, she probably had a really great idea. Everyone one of her managers are just power tripping.

    All of the great ideas that innovated the way we do things were thought to be crazy at one point.

    That's just my opinion

  34. Wayne,

    Thank you for your comments regarding stifling decent. I am an aerospace engineer working for NASA on the Space Shuttle program. I have experienced what was portrayed in the video you linked and I am thankful to see someone appreciates the frustration it has caused me and the negative effect it has on institutional innovation. I would like to take a moment to express those frustrations. If it adds value, I am glad. Otherwise, at least I will feel better.

    During the years I have been doing my job, I have frequently felt useless and underutilized. I have oscillated between feeling I am personally useless (the first time I have felt that way in any job) and upset that I was not being supported or aided in becoming engaged in my work.

    Than came Ares I-X. A breath of fresh air. There was no set way things had to be done and no preconceived ideas about who should play what role and who should be talking to whom. I suddenly felt free to apply my talents and skills and was gratified to see I was appreciated, looked to for my opinion, and felt I was adding value for the first time as a civil servant.

    I should have prefaced that last paragraph with the fact that I was not given direction to do these things by my management. I saw a need that was not being filled and stepped in and filled it.

    As I started to communicate to my management my activities, successes, and concerns regarding my Ares I-X work, I was questioned in a similar fashion to that shown in your video and made to understand that I was operating outside the scope of my assignment. However, I was not told to stop, just told to limit the time I spent supporting the new program.

    As my involvement developed, I was able to add greater value and felt even better about my job and myself. I soon informed my management that I felt my efforts would better be spent 100% on Ares I-X. Unfortunately, not only did they not agree, and went to the director to make sure I didn’t find a way to move over to Ares I-X officially (I am not kidding. They went a couple of steps above their own heads to block any attempt I made to flow up my opinion about where I could contribute the most to the agency), they expressed a concern that I was spending any time on the program at all.

    Once they realized I was serious about my stance, they came down hard and “commanded” me not participate in Ares I-X. After a couple times of testing their resolve by making last ditch efforts to explain how much would be lost if I stopped supporting the program and how much better I felt about my work in the program, I realized I was jeopardizing my career and possibly even my job if I continued in my efforts.

    I am now back to doing very little and providing minimal value to a bloated program where I am nothing more than a third redundancy. However, for the sake of my family and my career that supports them, I have stopped talking and restricted myself to Shuttle only.

    Those with whom I have worked feel I am being compartmentalized and have expressed their disappointment that I am not allowed to continue to support their efforts. Worst of all, no one has been assigned to fill the role into which I had stepped, and the work I was doing is not getting done. I believe this poses a risk to the Ares I-X schedule.

    I cannot adequately express my frustration and discouragement regarding this situation. Your video has helped me to understand how this situation can develop. However, it does not help alleviate its effect on me and the Ares I-X program.

    Thanks for listening…or at least giving me a chance to express myself.


    Consternated Civil Servant

  35. Wayne,
    I don’t have any problem, whatsoever, with believing what I saw in the video. In fact, it brings back striking memories.

    As an IFM flight controller in the 1980s, back in the days when you were in Payloads and training to be a Flight Director, we certainly had those problems. And we had them right up until the day I retired from NASA in 2005.

    I remember once being laughed at during a Shuttle equipment board (forgot the real name) when I gave a pitch to get a “rat-tail-file” on board the Shuttle. This, to file out the holes in the middeck structural panels which, when removed, provided access to the right-side forward avionics bay. Because the structure of the Shuttle was shifting, literally moving in three dimensions on orbit, the panel could not be reinstalled because the fastener holes would not line up. We found out, with the blessing of the crew, that using a round file on the holes would allow for re-alignment of the fasteners, and thus re-installation of the panel, a necessary thing for structural loading during reentry.

    I’ll never forget that day. “A what?” “A file?” “You’ve got to be kidding!!” “Get outta here, kid!!” So I was, not quite literally, thrown down eight floors of Building One. Today there is a whole set of files on Orbiter and Station, because those who followed me in this effort refused to give up in the face of management stupidity.

    Just an example. I went from JSC/MOD to Reston to work IFM (Of course the name had to be changed to On-Orbit Maintenance for some reason) Level II design requirements for Space Station Freedom. When Freedom dissolved into ISS, may wife and I stayed in Virginia, not wanting to go back to Houston (mostly the weather). So I went to NASA HQ and worked for 12 years until I retired in 2005.

    One of the reasons I retired (early, at age 58) was the very thing that is depicted in this video. The bureaucrats at HQ were far more interested in covering butt than in making progress. They were much more interested in maintaining the status quo, for that is a comfortable state, probably ingrained in human nature.

    I volunteered to go on the “Culture-change Committee” after the Columbia accident, but was refused. The people selected were those who had never been to a NASA Center. How can you change culture when you don’t inherently know the existing culture?

    Anyway, good luck. I’m not giving this much chance of success. That’s because, it seems to me, that human nature will win. I say that because protecting one’s sand box is human nature; protecting the status quo is human nature; protecting one’s “credibility” is human nature; and, not to forget, protecting one’s budget is downright tribal warfare.

    There has to be leadership, and I mean real leadership, at all levels. People cannot continue to be promoted when they have not exhibited leadership. I am not talking about management experience. I am talking about people who have the courage to get out in front and lead, from the front; protecting their troops; trusting them; nurturing them; mentoring them. Leaders with courage to do the hard thing. Leaders. Far too few of them at NASA, in my view, and very few, indeed, at NASA HQ.

    Gene Kranz was such a leader. Direct, forceful, knowledgeable, courageous, smart, truthful, and compassionate. “Common Sense,” personified.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight any more, except as a taxpayer. I don’t work for anyone, write for anyone, nor consult for anyone. These are purely my own comments.

    Take care,
    Jerry Johnson
    Lt.Col. USMCR (ret)
    NASA (GS-15) (ret)
    Hedgesville, WV

  36. I emailed Andrew Thomas and told him I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed it like I would any decent horror movie. The film captured parts of the true spirit of NASA. My last few years at JSC were not so pleasant. What I saw was not so innocent.

    Like I told Andrew, the months of retaliation and harassment until she was fired or run out of her job were left out. The post-employment retaliation and harassment would have made the film to long.

  37. RLOL, does anyone see how ludicrous this is.

    Let me rephrase:

    I drew up some pictures of how I see a spacecraft should be designed. I have no education, backround, or experience in rocket design but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

    This self critism seems to have gotten into high gear.

    Let’s everyone jump on the bandwagon, I’m sure there is sometime in your career here at NASA, where someone let you down. Let it all relate to this video so we can finally get it all out. And then when were done with all this purging can we please finally get on with building something so the American People can restore its faith in us again.

  38. Wayne, this video hit so close to home; it has happened to me personally when dealing with NASA. It is not even just when dealing with spacecraft design or flight safety, either. I presented an idea dealing with industrial safety that was faster, cheaper, better, safer, and less wasteful, and it stopped with the member of NASA that I presented it to because he “wasn’t comfortable with it.” If this this kind of culture continues, all of the best and brightest at NASA will go elsewhere. Personally, I am struggling with the decision of whether to stay or to go right now.

  39. I just watched this video and read the article and the first few comments below. Comment 38 through me for a loop.
    While I have followed NASA since college (over 25 years) and the shuttle in particular I could not believe the stance of this writer.
    A statement to the effect of ‘Let everyone air their grievances and then move on and get the job done’ gives me the impression that the engineers think they know it all and everyone else should just disappear. Well the one thing the public see in the 21st century is that NASA is not the only game in town. Those of us that are watching might feel that NASA is wasting our tax $’s. I know to some extent I do (and that applies to science, exploration and other parts of the agency). I also believe that NASA has a leadership role within our society and that NASA should take up a leadership mantel instead of an operations mantel.
    I, for one, would like to go to work for Google instead. I believe that I would steer my children to an agency like Google instead of an agency like NASA. NASA is not showing that it is a leader. Congress is not supporting NASA as an organization that display leadership (only as a public works program to support jobs within their districts). I sincerely hope that President Obama sees this video, the comments Mr. Hale makes and the post comments attached.

  40. A few comments from a non-rocket scientist. I think the Google part is misleading and not comparable to NASA. Google was flush with cash and expanding wildly in different directions. With the economic downturn, you can bet that ideas are being more closely scrutinized and receive less funding. The executive is no longer there to “work for you”, which was patronizing anyway.

    I imagine that NASA has the following process in place already or should if it doesn’t. In the software world, we would have “code reviews” where you bring in your baby (the actual code or the idea and detailed implementation plan) and four or five other software engineer peers would dismember it right in front of you. Sprinkle in a bunch of “what were you thinking?”, etc. It’s painful, especially the first time, but you quickly learn to be prepared to defend your idea in the face of intense scrutiny and criticism. If your idea remains afloat after that assault, your manager will have more confidence in bringing it and you to higher management. I didn’t see anything like that in the video.

  41. Wayne, it was a pleasure to chat with you last Thursday, 30 July, at the Augustine Commission meeting.

    Having been in corporate, non-profit and government agencies, culture is so hard to change. Damn near impossible.

    Clean out the top 200 bureaucrats and Bolden may have a chance.

    Again, thanks for your honesty.


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