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.


Remembrance Day

Luke 14:28  For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

Proper program management requires careful attention to the projected and actual costs.  From my experience I can verify that cost prediction is a difficult art.  How can you estimate the cost for something that has never been built, which is unlike anything else which has ever been built or operated, and for which some parts have to be invented?

Yet, when proposing a program or a project, it is not enough to describe what it is you intend to do and what the possible benefits might be, but also you must describe the cost.

In our business, not all the costs are financial.   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

A number of years ago we took one of those classic American family car-trip vacations to the Yellowstone National Park.  For a long part of the trip we travelled along the Oregon trail.  In good parental fashion we made our children study up about that great migration before and during the trip.  One passage from the history books reverberates in my mind:  “Every hundred paces along the trail there was some article of discarded furniture or farm equipment; every quarter mile there was the remains of a cow or oxen or horse, and even mile along the trail there was a grave.”   Pioneers have always paid the price for advancement with their blood.

So one day a year we set aside time to remember those pioneers who paid the ultimate price for our modern quest.  It is entirely fitting and proper that we do so.  Just as we set aside one day a year to honor the brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen who gave their lives to keep our country free.  Altogether fitting and proper.  And totally inadequate. 

As if we don’t remember them every day.  As if their faces and voices don’t haunt every meeting and every decision that face us as we seen more pioneers into the space frontier. As if we can’t practice every day the lessons that have been paid for with great price – a price in blood. 

Is the fourth Thursday in January the only day you remember them?  That is not enough. 

Can’t remember them all?  Here is one place to start:

They can no longer carry the work forward.  But we can.  If we remember.  Every day. 

It is not your privilege to speak up; it is your duty.

It is not your right to participate in the exploration of space; it is your privilege only if you pay excruciating attention to detail, check and recheck, and make certain it is right.

At the end of the day, our progress has to be worth their sacrifice.  Or we should not go at all.

And turning back is not the way they would have wanted to be remembered.