The Crisis Cycle


“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters.  One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
–John F. Kennedy.

Last week I read a guest blog on spacenews.com written by former NASA chief historian Roger Launius with a rather provocative lead-in: “Human Spaceflight on the Brink of Extinction?” The piece goes on to draw some parallels to today’s situation in human spaceflight with that faced in 1967 by another key part of NASA – the space science community – in putting together a controversial new major planetary exploration program. “The crisis in X” is the theme of the piece, and how lessons learned from the 1967 space science crisis might be important indicators on how to move forward today in human spaceflight.  Rather than debate the merits of applicability of the 1967 experience (because personally, I believe the experience in 1993 of the morphing of the Space Station Freedom program into today’s International Space Station program is a closer analogue to today’s situation), I’d like to focus on that key word – crisis.  I wondered: are we really facing a crisis today in human spaceflight?  What exactly is a crisis, and what actions should we take if we are in a crisis?

To provide a framework for investigating this question, I’ll borrow again from Michael Watkins’s book, “The First 90 Days” and his description of the STaRS model of state transitions for a business, covering start-up (the first “S”), turnaround (the “T”), realignment (the “R”), and sustaining success (the last “S”).  The desired outcome (“success”) in the STaRS business model is to achieve, return to, or maintain the sustaining success state.  No matter where we are, all successful paths lead to sustaining success.  Pretty simple.  Failure also has its consequences in the STaRS model.  Failure in a start-up leads to shutdown and divestiture, as does failure in a turnaround.  Failure in sustaining success leads to the need for a realignment, and failure in a realignment leads to the need for a turnaround.  Because the failure relationships are a bit more complicated, perhaps a diagram will be of benefit here.

(The STaRS diagram, adapted from “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins.)

Within the STaRS model, there are two failure/success closed-loop cycles.  The first cycle, from sustaining success to realignment back to sustaining success, is called the renewal cycle.  Similarly, the three-staged cycle from sustaining success to realignment to turnaround back to sustaining success is called the crisis cycle.  (Aha!)  Why is it called that?  Because as I mentioned before, failure in a turnaround leads to shutdown and divesture – i.e., the end of the business.

Clearly, the crisis cycle starts the same as the renewal cycle – as a failure to sustain success, leading to a transition to the realignment state.  In fact, this model assumes that a crisis first starts as a need for renewal, and the failure of a renewal leads to crisis.  Underlying this assumption is the following conclusion: the solution for a renewal cycle is different than that for a crisis cycle. This makes logical sense: after all, if what was being tried in the realignment situation was working, it wouldn’t have failed!

Now that I’ve provided this background based upon the STaRS model, what are the actions necessary to initiate recovery from a renewal cycle, from a crisis cycle, how are they different, and what does this have to do with human spaceflight?

As I’ve written previously, the actions over the last year indicate to me that human spaceflight is in a realignment situation. The first indication was the action taken last year by the Obama Administration to form the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, often referred to as the Augustine Committee (so named after chair Norm Augustine).  The Augustine Committee’s report, released late last year, provided a series of options for a human spaceflight program “worthy of a great nation” without coming forward with a specific recommendation. The report appears to have been consumed by policy makers in the Obama Administration, whose subsequent Fiscal Year 2011 budget for NASA closely resembles “Option 5b” in the report.  Since that time, NASA has slowed down further work on the Constellation program and has undertaken a series of activities to unify support within the Agency for development of flexible plans to implement the human spaceflight program (assuming Congress appropriates funds and the White House approves).  NASA has also made some slight changes to its top leadership team.  The formation of the committee, changes in leadership, and taking steps to plan the future while Congress and the White House settle on the framework are indicative to me of a proactive thinking, methodical approach – the hallmarks of initiating a renewal cycle from a realignment situation. Let’s contrast this with the crisis cycle: what would that look like?

In the business world, the turnaround state and ensuing crisis cycle to recovery takes a dramatic turn from the recovery cycle.  In a turnaround situation, teams, organizations, and personnel are jettisoned, and the company is restructured in drastic ways in order to preserve the defendable, essential business core.  The fundamental approach in a crisis cycle is one of dire necessity to save the company: act first, then plan next steps later.  (Keep in mind that a failure to act leads to shutdown and divestiture, so the stakes are quite high.)  It’s the realm of the “hatchet man” and deep, agonizing cuts in personnel as well as a major restructuring of the organization.

I’m finding it a bit difficult to draw an exact analogy from the business world to the public sector regarding the crisis cycle.  On one hand, the presumed cancellation of the Constellation program (which was NASA’s next major human spaceflight program to return to the Moon and go beyond, started in 2005, and proposed for cancellation by the Obama Administration in February) is leading to work slowdowns and personnel layoffs in the contractor ranks as the current fiscal year winds down.  However, recent actions in the House and Senate on new NASA Authorization bills are stemming the tide of cancellation slightly, which complicates the analysis.  In the larger picture, it’s difficult for me to say whether immediate-term actions by Congress, the White House, and NASA, if they fail, will lead to a complete shutdown and divestiture of human spaceflight.  Setting aside the emotional investment and impact, my intuition says no.  This leads me to conclude that we have not reached the crisis cycle – at least not yet.

In summary, the crisis cycle is engaged when there is a clear failure of the renewal cycle.

  • action shifts from offense (finding new opportunities) to defense (protecting the essential core)
  • action shifts from “thinking before acting” to “doing first and examining later”
  • action shifts from restructuring of the leadership to a restructuring of organizations
  • action shifts from personnel realignment to personnel downsizing

As the fiscal year draws to a close and the NASA Authorization bills work their way through their respective chambers to a conference committee, the appropriations are passed by Congress and signed by the President, and NASA continues to develop its plans and take action for implementing a human spaceflight program “worthy of a great nation”, we will discover if we averted the crisis to come, or if we are now living it.

Time will tell.

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The Crisis Cycle

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