It’s a Crazy World

“There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.”
–Henry Miller

 

 

 

 

 

As I wrote in my previous blog entry, I was dealing with an eleventh hour issue prior to the formal review of my team’s strategic plan for NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy lab and Space Vehicle Mockup building. The issue was handled at the last minute by my team’s attorney, who walked special paperwork around for signatures to resolve the issue.

Between buildings in 100 degree heat.

While pregnant.

It’s a crazy world we live in, reinforced by an event at the start of the formal review on Friday. My support team showed up with a new guide and said, “It’s the new format from Headquarters for your report. It was approved in May, but we just received it this morning.  This is the format they are expecting.”

Did I mention crazy?

So, what is my leadership perspective on all of this? I recall a quote from former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace during my time at NASA Headquarters: “Some things are secrets,  and some things are mysteries.” I also recall another one from my Dad, who always said this while I was growing up: “Don’t sweat the petty stuff.”  (His expression was more colorful but you get the idea.)  Sure, I could have chosen to go ballistic over all the crazy eleventh hour stuff, but what would have resulted from it? Higher blood pressure for me, and little else. A few days ago another attorney remarked to me, “You are so calm, cool, and understanding of all this.”  That is the ideal compliment at this time, because that tells me that what I intend on projecting is being received. I even joked with my deputy: “Hey, if this eleventh hour craziness causes a delay, look on the bright side – we can take the afternoon off and go drinking.” She added, “on the golf course.”

Now, isn’t that a great deputy?

The review itself went without a hitch and we will continue with more formal reviews of my team’s strategic plan. And I’m sure we will encounter other crazy events as we go forward. I expect it, and I will continue to handle each one as I have handled the ones so far – cool and collected. I’ll save the craziness for the celebratory party afterwards!

The Eleventh Hour

“When you are in any contest, you should work as if there were – to the very last minute – a chance to lose it. This is battle, this is politics, this is anything.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

 

 

 

Last week was a great week for the team.

On Tuesday I briefed my team’s strategic plan to the leadership team in mission operations.  We had a frank and open conversation, one where I permitted and even encouraged those with dissenting opinions to be heard.  In the end, we received the endorsement to proceed with our plan as proposed.  In the subsequent days, we finalized our briefing materials for the executives at NASA Headquarters, and are ready to start the long review process to ensure we’ve “dotted all the i’s” and “crossed all the t’s”.  It seems like everything has come together, and that we can take a breather while our package is being reviewed.

An e-mail late on Friday has reminded me that despite every effort to be prepared, events on the outside will arise to upset the equilibrium.

The above refers to a particular issue that has been simmering beneath the surface for a while.  I was aware of it about a month ago and decided it was not a priority due to its limited scope.  We had bigger concerns on our plate.  However, the issue sprang to life in an unexpected way late Friday and turns out to be more far-reaching than I expected.

First, the issue is a distraction for me in the immediate term, and I will want to keep it from being a distraction for the team.  The team deserves to celebrate its accomplishments and not be concerned with events beyond its control.

Second, the issue has the potential of delaying the review schedule while I seek a resolution.  OK, fine – I will deal with a schedule delay if it comes to that.

Third, the issue is a reminder that surprises can and will arise, and many will be beyond the team’s control.  As a proactive leader, it is incumbent on me to anticipate events to prevent surprises, and to react quickly and decisively to unanticipated events in a manner that helps the team.  This event is a mixture of both – the basic event was known to me, the far-reaching nature of it was not.

I’m blessed with a very supportive leadership team.  Friday night I informed them of the issue and the steps I was going to take on Monday to address it.  I also sought their help if they could see a way to provide it.  And that they did.  The leadership got engaged that night and are working with higher-level leaders to help me find a resolution to the issue.  I’ll continue with my proposed approach and am confident that one or the other will lead to a satisfactory resolution.

My team and I are in the eleventh hour of our strategic planning work.  I’m sure that other issues will arise.  I view one of the marks of leadership as being how one handles the eleventh hour, where last-minute issues can arise and will test the character of the leader.  The clock is still ticking, and we’re still moving forward.

Purpose

Life without a purpose is a languid, drifting thing; every day we ought to review our purpose, saying to ourselves, ‘This day let me make a sound beginning, for what we have hitherto done is naught!’”
–Thomas Kempis

 

 

My team and I are underway in the vetting of several key points in our strategic plan.  Last week we reviewed with a key stakeholder and with a key external organization.  In a few days, we will brief our leadership in mission operations.  In my last two entries I shared my challenges around Repackaging and Fear of Change that arose as we were assembling the presentation for the briefings. There is one more element for me to address: Purpose.

My team’s proposed strategic plan is rooted in the federal acquisition process and ties to the larger vision of the future for mission operations.  I extracted key points from our strategic plan for validation by our local stakeholders and key organizations.  It was the presentation-building process with the team that uncovered issues in the packaging of the message and fear of change, which I discussed earlier.  In the course of resolving those issues, I made one more addition to help me focus the presentation.  It addresses a question for me: why am I interested in seeking early feedback on these key elements from our stakeholders and leadership. Put simply, what is the purpose?

In one sense, I answer to many chiefs.  I answer to the leadership of mission operations, who have crafted and are acting on a larger vision that addresses the retirement of shuttle, a transition to steady state operations of the International Space Station, and the eventual start of mission operations for Orion.  I also deal with the federal acquisition process, with its bevy of procurement and legal professionals.  We are proposing change in an environment of change. And we need help if our strategic plan is to be successful.  With all of this, I boiled down the purpose to two key points: to introduce the leadership of mission operations to the key element of our strategic plan, and to point out to them where we will need their help.

This message, along with the repackaging and addressing the underlying fear of change, has made for a successful presentation so far.  One I finish the last briefing this week, my team and I begin a month-long process of formal reviews of the larger package before it is presented to executives at NASA Headquarters.  My motivation: focusing on the basic purpose of the vetting process at this stage will lead to a successful next stage, and an approved strategic plan.  That is the outcome I seek, and so far so good!

Fear of Change

“The key to change…is to let go of fear.”
–Rosanne Cash

 

 

 

 

 

The last few days have been extremely challenging and, for a lack of a better word, draining.  My team has been working hard to putting the final touches on our strategic plan.  In recent days I’ve written about some of the challenges concerning the “packaging of the message” (see Repackaging).  With a frank and frustrating conversation within the team today, I got a glimmer of a deep, underlying issue that has percolated beneath the surface which, when it burst forth, almost threatened to grind us to a halt.

The issue is a fear of change.

In the opinion of some associated with my team, there is no compelling reason to change. “What we have right now is working fine. We’re safe, getting the job done, and are performing within our budget marks. Why should we change?”

Fair question.

To get to the root of an answer, I found myself recalling John Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model. Step 1 is “create a sense of urgency” around the need for change. Clearly, some associated with my team have no sense of urgency about the change – some believe no change is needed at all!  Therefore, to get off the dime, somehow I need to address step 1.

My challenge here is that I’m an “outsider” to the rest of the team. I am part of the same larger organization as the members of my team; however, I don’t have the expertise nor ownership of the work that my team members have.  Therefore, for me to expose some sense of urgency would be met with some skepticism and may undermine my credibility in their eyes.  Where should I go, then?

To our organization’s top leadership.

I almost undermined this option.  At first, I chose to present the team’s strategy solo, just me and the top leadership.  One of my team members asked if I would reconsider that approach and allow the rest of the team to attend. I offered to consider the request, then realized that beneath the surface was a cry for validation from our boss on the goals and objectives we have set that are tied the change.  Therefore, when I present to the top leadership, I want my team to attend. I will ask the top leadership to address the need and urgency for the change – why should we change at all, and how important is it? If we can get through this particular step and obtain buy-in from everyone associated with my team, we will set the stage for working the other seven steps (most of which are already in place) and will be successful in moving forward with our strategy.

Fear of change. It says we’re human and fallible, yet it also speaks to the possibilities available to us if we can overcome our fear.

Repackaging

“What this means is that we shouldn’t abbreviate the truth but rather get a new method of presentation.”
–Edward Tufte

 

 

 

 

A few days ago I met with a member of my extended team who is disagreeing with my team’s proposed strategy.  Although I declared the meeting with the hold-out a success (see A Measure of Success), I noted his continuing resistance.  Sure, some people are close-minded; yet I wondered if it was my approach and messaging – basically, the packaging – that was causing the barriers in his case.  As I reflected on that over the last few days, I came to a realization: I’m missing something, and it’s something important.

When I began constructing my presentation, I started with the results of my team’s work.  I defaulted to what I’ll call “marketing speak”: I described the major parts of my team’s approach in terms of the “features” and “benefits” of each part of our strategy.  The feedback I got from my hold-out was that he saw our approach as compromising safety for the sake of reducing cost.  It was that statement that afterwards led me to the realization that I failed to state up front the key objective that my team is trying to reach: to find a way to reduce our costs while maintaining safety and technical performance at the levels to which we expect and require, and to show how we accomplish this through our approach.  Because I didn’t do that, my holdout wasn’t buying my message in its current state.  Perhaps that is a sign that someone else won’t be buying it when I take this presentation to the next level. All of this crystallized for me in a moment of insight on Friday.

So on Friday afternoon, my deputy, another team member and I conversed on this point and started sharing ideas on various approaches for starting with the objective and tying into the proposed strategy.  We made some progress – enough to give us confidence that the repackaging has promise – and agreed to hit it fresh on Monday.  Over the weekend I also sought the advice of Noeleen McGrath (@McGrathComm on Twitter) of McGrath Communications, who has helped me on other previous communications topics, to affirm the basics of the new ideas.

Here is what I see as the repackaging approach.  First, I envision reassembling and tweaking the central tenet of the message.  Instead of jumping straight to the result, I see starting with the objective of reducing cost while maintaining safety and technical performance, and following that up with a story of how we arrived at an approach that builds upon the research, benchmarking, and interviews we conducted.  From this follows the hard evidence that substantiates my team’s proposed strategy and the associated features and benefits I already have in the presentation.

I view the above – repackaging – as part leadership challenge, part presentation challenge.  Both share the need to start with the key objectives. Presentation is about communicating that point clearly; leadership is about inspiring around and obtaining buy-in around that point.  I’m convinced that through this repackaging, I will be better representing my team’s strategic approach and will show how it results in the best overall value to the government while achieving our goals of safe and effective operations.

A Measure of Success

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.”
–David Brinkley

 

 

 

 

In my last entry (see Persuasion) I mentioned a key challenge that I was choosing to face: persuade a reluctant key stakeholder that our methodology and resulting strategic plan is the best feasible course of action given the circumstances.  I discussed the various persuasion tactics and how I am going to use two:  seek the aid others with influence over him, and inspire.

Today, my deputy and I tried the inspire approach.  We appeal to him as having a key role to play in the implementation.  Then we listen to him voice his concerns.  We showed how we captured them into our strategic plan and how we’ve either addressed them or identified future work.

So, did it work?

To answer this, I need to backtrack a few days as I was preparing for how to have this conversation.  As I reflected on my previous entry and was sketching my plans, I realized that I did not have defined a success criterion.  So, to answer the question, “Did it work?” requires defining the success criterion.  So, what constitutes success?

For this I looked at one of the earlier persuasion options: consult. What it and inspire had in connection was a validation of the individual, whether it is values or concerns.  Therefore, I set my success criterion to be his acknowledgement that we were recognizing his values and concerns in our methodology and strategic plan.

After three hours of conversing about my team approach and how we are integrating his values and concerns into our approach, he still not agree with us.  However, when I asked him, “Have we integrated your values and concerns?” his answer was yes, and that we did a good job of it. Nevertheless, he still disagreed with us.

In the big picture, I do believe that the work of my team has resulted in the best, feasible course of action that all of us are committed to implementing and can live with.  We do face challenges in implementation that may make refinements in the details that are better handled later anyway.  With where we are and what we’ve accomplished, I’m ready to proceed to the next level.

Successful today? You bet!