Encouraging Innovation at NASA

I have another video for you to watch, but before you do let me give you a little context.

On this date, March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, professor of Physics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts tried out his newest invention in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch near Auburn, Massachusetts.  Pretty old cabbages in that garden in March in Massachusetts.  Dr. Goddard’s invention?  The world’s very first liquid fueled rocket.  It flew; not very high nor very far, but it flew.  And attracted the attention of the town’s volunteer fire department – they asked Dr. Goddard not to do any more experiments there.

Dr. Goddard had carried on his work despite the fact that a few years earlier he was humiliated in a very public forum.  After he had delivered a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, the New York Times devoted several column inches in its editorial page to denigrate his thoughts.  Most quotable from the NY Times editorial was this comment about Dr. Goddard’s grasp of physics:  “”does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  A classic line if there ever was one.  I should note that in July 1969 (almost a half century later and well after Dr. Goddard’s death) the NY Times posted a correction with the words “The Times regrets its error.”  Indeed. 

The public criticism confirmed Dr. Goddard’s introverted nature and he continued his work, mostly in secret and mostly in isolation for another quarter century.  Other, more knowledgeable folks, read his work and were enlightened by it.  In 1945, German engineers from Peenemunde, where rocketry had made huge – regrettable at the time – advances, when interrogated by their American captors about rockets, replied “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?”  They paid attention.  We did not.

We cannot afford to let good ideas slip from our grasp.  Innovation and creativity are the foundation on which our economy is really founded. 

So a few weeks ago, a team of folks at Johnson Space Center made a video report on what are some of the barriers to innovation at NASA.  A lot of you watched that video and many of the comments reported that these barriers exist in a wide spectrum of private and public organizations.  That video was an amalgam of the most egregious examples of poor communication and bad management that unfortunately still occurs from time to time in supposedly “creative” organizations.

Now the team has taken their list of proposed ways to overcome these barriers and turned them into another video.  This video is to produce discussion and thought.  Some of these ideas are better than others.  A couple of the proposals are being implemented at JSC at this time. 

So watch, and consider.  And ask this question — how are you helping to encourage creativity and innovation in your organization? 



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.


Learning from dissent

            If you listen with an open mind, you can learn a lot from people who disagree with you.  Even questioning the fundamentals from time to time is a good exercise to make sure we are on the right track and not on the proverbial bus trip to Abilene.


            I really resonated with the comment by Joe Fitzgerald of Boston, reading his children the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  When my children were small, we read the whole series at bedtime, one chapter a night.  I particularly liked “Farmer Boy” but all of the books are good because they are true and very well told.  After reading those books, I always wondered if I was tough enough to be a pioneer; probably not. 


            Joe thinks space exploration is a long way from Ma & Pa Ingalls setting out across the Midwest in their covered wagon.  Turns out, I do too. 


Some time back I had a great conversation with Mike Griffin where he pointed out that we are at the earliest stages of space exploration, and likened our times to the era of the Viking longboats. Those crude ships were just barely enough to get across the stormy Atlantic.  Sometimes, not always.  In space exploration we really need to get to the Caravel stage; which is still far short of the Clipper Ship phase, and light years from the jet aircraft stage. 


            In the 1850’s there was a proposal to build dirigibles to transport folks from the east coast to the California gold fields.  At the time ballooning was immensely popular but the technology was immature.  Still, it looked like a better option than taking five months across the mountains, prairies, and deserts on foot or by wagon.  Sadly, the dirigibles never materialized.  In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed and a vastly less capable technology – steam locomotives – was used to cross the country in only seven days!  I wonder how history would have been different if we had invested more in lighter than aircraft than in steam locomotives?  Today everybody travels by air – just not dirigibles – while passenger trains are almost extinct.


Ma & Pa Ingalls will have to wait for a few more improvements in technology before we can get off the planet at anything like regular people prices.  But I don’t think that we should give us seafaring just because all we have is a Viking longboat.  We just have more impetus to build a better boat.


            Point well taken, Joe; your comment certainly made me think.


            Friday I had a “dissenting opinion” from a well respected source.  Bob Thompson who was the first Space Shuttle Program Manager from 1974 to 1981 gave me a call.  Bob is a man of vast talents who was responsible for building the Skylab space station before he was handed the near-impossible job to build the first reusable spacecraft.  He is singularly proud of his accomplishment, as he should be.


            Bob’s treatise was simple; we have got enough to do to master near earth space – low earth orbit to geosync – to keep us busy and learning for the next 30 to 50 years.  His proposal is to keep doing what we have been doing and put any thoughts of going back to the moon or on to other places off until a later date.  I cannot do his argument justice here but it was fascinating to hear someone who is so completely counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom.  It always makes me more thoughtful when the fundamentals are examined in a well considered way.


            As a byproduct of this conversation I got a great recounting of the early days of Skylab and how many of the fundamental engineering tradeoffs were made in early Shuttle design.  Extraordinarily educational.  Lots to think about.  I hope Bob and I get to debate this one some more. 


            After a weekend’s worth of thought, I am still, as they say, disinclined to acquiesce to Bob’s opinion.  A longer explanation is worthwhile but I am running out of time and space today.  That will be a blog post for a future date.


            Keep thinking and we’ll keep talking; all the while working toward the future.


            Meanwhile, I’ve got to go help bail out the longboat a little bit . . . .