“The best way to persuade people is with your ears – by listening to them.”
– Dean Rusk





Over the last week my team has achieved a breakthrough on our key challenge.  We’ve been working for weeks seeking our way to a solution, often stumbling around in the dark.  Yet our perseverance has paid off and we created a workable solution around which to build our strategy.  Now, the team can focus on other supporting items that comprise other parts of our strategy.

Yet for me, there is a key challenge remaining.

I have one stakeholder who is dead-set against any proposal that is different than the approach of today.  I wrote about this previously in The Best, Feasible Course of Action.  One of my team members, who is the holdout’s deputy, has tried on several occasions to discuss our approach with him.  Despite the efforts, the stakeholder is still holding out.  I believe his reaction is an emotional one based upon the close-mindedness of his counter-arguments and also due to other things he has said which do not bear repeating here.

I could ignore the situation.  After all, if the managers and executives approve our approach, and I’m extremely confident they will, the holdout will need to conform or be replaced.  In one respect, it doesn’t have to be my challenge to face.  Yet I’m choosing to undertake this challenge for the greater good.

What my team member has tried is to persuade through reason: the presentation of logical arguments supported by solid data.  After all, this is NASA, and a great amount of our work is accomplished through that means.  Yet reason isn’t working here because the holdout is not open to or using reason as his basis.  Another persuasion tactic is to apply pressure, basically the choice of last resort I mentioned earlier.  Another persuasion tactic we tried earlier was to consult with him, to engage him in the problem solving process and integrate his concerns and ideas.  That approach made some progress.  However, it didn’t go far enough to get the holdout to the point that I’m seeking: to say yes that we have a well thought-through strategy that he will support implementing and can live with.  Given what he said to his deputy, it appears to me his support will be half-hearted at best; his participation appeared to be motived to persuade us to not make any changes.

There are other options to try, and that is what I’m going to do.

One is to seek the aid others with influence over him.  In this case, it is an uninvolved third party who happens to be familiar with the technical work of my team.  I’ve approached this third person and will share with him the basis of our strategy.  Unless I’m dead wrong about this, he will agree that our approach is not only workable, it also offers the best possible solution for maintaining excellence in our facilities given the circumstances of shuttle retirement, transition to sustaining operations on the International Space Station, and budgetary realities.  It is my desire that the third party approach the holdout and share his perspectives.

That is not the only route I’m going to take.

Another option is for me to meet one-on-one with the holdout and appeal to his aspirations, values, and ideals.  The inspire approach happens to be the technique that led to my team’s most recent breakthrough.  When I used the phrase, “Wouldn’t it be great if…”, wonderful results happened with my team last week.  I’m going to try the same with my holdout.  I know where his concerns are and will integrate those into my approach.  I will also appeal to him as having a key role to play in the implementation.  Then I’m going to listen to him.  In certain respects it doesn’t matter what strategy my team and I propose; ultimately it will come down to his attitude and how he approaches the future.

Persuasion. Let’s give it a go!


The Lifecycle

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
–Sir Winston Churchill





On Saturday, I watched the landing of Atlantis, marking the completion of STS-125, with a small bit of sadness.  I found that my sadness was shared by a number of NASA colleagues and space enthusiasts on Twitter.  A point was raised during the post-landing briefing that STS-125 completes the final mission for shuttle to anything but the ISS.  Ed Weiler, the Associate Administrator at NASA Headquarters for the Science Mission Directorate, was questioning all the glum faces: after all, the Hubble Space Telescope achieved a new lease on life as a result of the mission.

In part, he is right; in part, he missed the point.

It is true that Hubble is a better observatory now than it was before the repair, and perhaps better than it ever was before. There is no denying that, and it is this point that Weiler was making during the press conference.  After all, he has been involved with Hubble since the early days, and was viewing the situation from the perspective of Hubble.

The rest of us were viewing the situation from the perspective of the shuttle.

The shuttle is in its 29th year of operation.  We all know that the remaining flights on the manifest are to complete the assembly of the International Space Station.  Therefore, in a way, the completion of STS-125 marks the end of an era of discovery and a transition coming soon to a new phase: the ending stage of the life cycle.

I’d like to be careful here.  We do have seven flights remaining on the manifest (eight if the Alpha Mass Spectrometer mission is funded by Congress in accordance with guidance from the White House).  Each of those missions is just as important as those that preceded them.  Yet when the last mission is flown – in fact before – what do we do?

What we should do is take a page from the five elements of Feng Shui.  The fifth and final element of Feng Shui, water, has to do with regeneration; it is the ending of one phase and the starting of the next. It is a time for reflection, to capture lessons learned, to celebrate, and to prepare for the transition to something new.  STS-125 reminds us that the end of the shuttle is near and that now is the time to prepare our transitions to something new and better.  Sure, there can be sadness with the ending of something. That is quite natural. Yet with the ending is the opportunity to tackle new challenges.  For many of us in human space flight, that “something new” is Constellation.

This topic actually brings me to a related topic concerning my team. Yesterday, my management informed me that they are near naming the person who will take over my team for me.  The plan all along has been for me to lead the team through the strategic development phase, then for me to hand over to another person to lead the competitive procurement stage.  In one sense, that conversation marks for me a transition point, similar to what STS-125 does for shuttle, indicating my time as leader of my team will be ending.  Yet like the shuttle, my team and I have a heck of a lot of work to do before we achieve the end.  Now is the time to press to completion and to remember to reflect, celebrate, and get ready for the next new challenge when the time arrives.

The Lifecycle

The Question

”To every answer you can find a new question.”
–Yiddish proverb

Yesterday I was asked a rather innocent question: “What are you doing exactly?”  I took a bit of a leap of faith and answered the question by sharing details about the particulars of my team’s work and the challenges we are facing.

What happened after that was simply amazing.

Later that day, I encountered a somewhat similar story from a different angle told by Janine Shepherd (@janineshepherd on Twitter) in her latest blog entry. In it she asked an inquisitive question and discovered an incredible story about another soul on a different journey but to the same destination.

Was the universe trying to tell me something?  Was I listening?  But before I get ahead of myself, here is what I shared in response to the original question.

Within NASA’s mission operations in Houston, we have two key facilities used to train astronauts and to perform engineering assessment, some light fabrication, and mission timeline verification.  These are the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF).  The NBL is a huge pool – 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 40 feet deep – that uses neutral buoyancy techniques to simulate microgravity. It’s best known as where the astronauts train for EVAs, or “spacewalks”.  The SVMF contains full-sized mockups of the shuttle, ISS and other human-tended vehicles and is used to train astronauts in the usage of crew systems inside the vehicles, among other activities.  Most of the work in these locations is performed by contractors, and the current contract ends in September 2010.  Therefore, the primary responsibility of my team is to create a contract strategy.

But it is more than simply re-letting a contract. The Space Shuttle Program is a major tenant in both of these facilities.  Although the Constellation Program will become a tenant in the future, it will not be in 2011 when shuttle is retired.  In fact, Constellation will not have the same need for space-based EVAs like did the shuttle or ISS assembly, which puts a bigger question on the future of the NBL.  (Constellation’s primary EVA need will be surface operations, which is not needed until the lunar program gets going later in the next decade, and will be partial gravity instead of microgravity.)  Therefore, the fundamental issue at hand is what do we do with these key agency and national assets, and how do we build a contract around that approach?

The second item with which we are wrestling is tied to a memorandum from the White House released in March, and a desire from NASA Headquarters that predates the memorandum, to transition work to fixed price contracting.  I’m not a procurement professional – I’m a physicist by schooling, aerospace engineer by trade, and now leading teams by choice – so the whole environment of contract types and structures was foreign to me until I got into this activity.  The problem is one of a paradigm shift.  NASA and other federal agencies are accustomed to “cost reimbursable” contracting, which means something like this: “I’m not exactly sure what I need, but I have a decent idea; therefore, you do the work and I’ll reimburse you for your costs, no matter what they are. I’ll pay for your contingencies, too.” Fixed price is more like this: “I know what I want; let’s agree upon the price, and that is all I’m willing to pay, no matter what – in other words, you eat the contingencies.” The latter is seen as one of several means to better control costs from a government standpoint, which is critical given our current budgetary situation.  Discretionary spending like that of NASA is going to come under ever increasing pressure, and we all know that.

So, I’m leading the cutting edge of strategic development to address the transition of a facility through and beyond shuttle retirement, which has its own set of concerns about workforce impacts, and through a possible transition to fixed price contracting.  You can see our work here:  Although the current focus is the NBL and SVMF, I’m paving the way for other similar efforts to come soon within NASA’s mission operations.  I did the NASA leadership development program 2 years in preparation to transition from an entry-level technical leadership role into a higher-level leadership role, which is exactly what I got.  Boy, did I ever!

As I said earlier, what happened after I shared my story was simply amazing.  The person with whom I was conversing was Eva-Jane Lark (@EVA_Interviews on Twitter) who conducts interviews with space entrepreneurs.  More importantly for me, she has a unique perspective on the financing of space endeavors due to her role as an investment advisor for a well-known firm in Ottawa.  Little did I know that she has first-hand expertise in many of the issues my team is facing, and as an independent party has given me insights that I have not found elsewhere.

I reflected on this last night and this morning and realized that the message was simple: the power of a question, and being open to sharing, creates incredible possibilities. Imagine what would happen if all of us were inquisitive and open to entertaining questions as a natural response. Imagine what we could learn…the connections we can make and strengthen.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

The Question

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

“Our strength grows out of our weaknesses”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson






To start the day today, I responded to a tweet from @ellyhart on Twitter concerning weaknesses.  The fundamental question was this: should you focus on your weaknesses, or ignore your weaknesses and use your strengths to your fullest?

In a very interesting way, I’m fascinated that an innocent question like this at the beginning of my day would become the key point of my day!

One compelling argument is that you should become aware of your weaknesses so that you can address them through training or other form of compensation, such as working with another person with different strengths than you.  Another argument is that if you focus on your strengths and develop them further, your weaknesses become unimportant.

While I was in NASA’s leadership development program, I encountered a very successful leader who talked about focusing on one’s strengths – do even better what you do well.  This, in turn, turned me onto further research into this topic, which led to an evaluation of my own strengths.  Here is what I discovered about my strengths through this process:

  • Futuristic – envisioning an exciting future and pointing the direction to make that future a reality (“Wouldn’t it be great if…”)
  • Maximizer – excellence is the greatest reward
  • Ideation – discovering new ideas and concepts
  • Adaptability – reacting to the situation at hand and embracing change instead of running away from it (“go with the flow”)
  • Deliberative – gathering data to ensure we’ve covered our bases

I looked at these for a bit and asked a very logical question: when would these become a liability, or a weakness?  This question is derived from the concept that a strength misapplied or over-emphasized can become a weakness.

  • Futuristic – concerned more about the future instead of the here and now.
  • Maximizer – very high standard of excellence; only the best, optimal solution is acceptable.
  • Ideation – like the kid in the candy store, gathering ideas and concepts but not doing anything with it.
  • Adaptability – what is your position? (take a stand!)
  • Deliberative – analysis by paralysis: need more data.

This leads me to today and a situation that happened with my team.

We’ve been working very hard on a very challenging aspect of our strategic planning.  We have to solve this problem to move on, because much of our strategy is dependent on what we decide here.  It’s been a slow process of discovery, debate, questioning, and assessment.  While my team was working on this, I felt I had stumbled into a particular approach that would provide a framework for organizing our decision in a way that would make it very objective and sellable to the executive at NASA Headquarters.  I felt strongly that this approach was it, and furthermore that my interpretation of how to implement it was the right way.

Big mistake.

What did I do here?  I locked onto a solution as being “the way” and over-defended it when questioned.  This was clearly a case of a Maximizer incorrectly applied.  We argued, I defended, and we made no progress.  Afterwards, I reflected on the situation and realized that my role as the leader is not to maximize the solutions of the team, it is to maximize the performance of the team.  I focused on the wrong element to maximize, and as a result a strength became a weakness.

So, what I believe is that one’s greatest weaknesses are one’s greatest strengths misapplied.  Therefore, I believe that if you know your strengths, you also know your greatest weaknesses. Finally, I offer that proper application of your strengths avoids your greatest weaknesses.

I’d love to hear what you think of this.

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

Reflections on Hubble

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”
–John Leonard






Today as I was watching EVA #4 on STS-125, I reflected on each of the Hubble missions and how they are tied with different phases of my career.  I’m so blessed to have a career I love in an endeavor in which I have total alignment of values and larger sense of purpose.  Hubble has been there almost as mile markers for events in my career.

Shuttle mission STS-31 flew in April 1990 and delivered Hubble to orbit (in NASA parlance, we call it a “deploy”).  I was a few years out of graduate school and was a very young engineer working in a part of mission operations called “Flight Design.”  At the time, I was working on a different mission that would fly two years later, yet STS-31 caught my eye for several reasons.  First, it was about Hubble.  All the promises I recalled as a kid growing up of putting an observatory above the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere were coming to fruition.  Second, my eye was caught by Mission Control.  I knew several of the people working there in the front row (called “The Trench”), and when I would catch a glimpse of them on NASA TV, I wondered: “Do I have what it takes to do that job?”  That question put me on a path of preparation – to be the best engineer I could – such that when the opportunity came to compete for a position in Mission Control, I was ready.  I was selected to train as a Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Officer (call sign “Rendezvous”) the following year.

To everyone’s dismay, Hubble was launched with an optical flaw that hampered its ability to realize its full potential.  Shuttle mission STS-61 was launched in December 1993 with corrective optics and other upgrades to repair Hubble.  It was one of the highest profile and toughest shuttle missions ever flown.  By that point in time, I was well into my Rendezvous training and had at that point certified in one of the supporting positions in the “backroom.”  I was still quite green and was very worried about accidentally talking on the Flight Director loop or missing a call from the front room.  Most of all, I was simply amazed that I was in Mission Control for such an historic mission.  I listened to and absorbed the teamwork and trouble-shooting techniques I observed firsthand.  I felt a part of the mission even though my role was miniscule.  Upon its successful completion, I looked back on the mission and remarked to myself: “I am a real flight controller!”

A few months later, I completed my Rendezvous training and certification.  I conquered my “green-ness” and served with distinction on several key shuttle missions as a Rendezvous officer.  This led to me being recognized with a Space Flight Awareness award, one component of which was to be flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be a VIP guest for a shuttle launch.  The launch was the second servicing mission to Hubble, STS-82 launched in February 1997.  To top it off, it was not an ordinary launch – it was a night launch!  By that point in time I had worked with several of the STS-82 crew members on other missions, so I had that extra connection with the flight.  It was a real treat to see Discovery lift off the pad and light up the area, almost as bright as daylight!  To date, that is my lone shuttle launch to see in person.

I served as a Rendezvous officer for nearly two more years.  After that, I joined the ranks of leadership at NASA and served as the “Group Lead” for a different group of flight controllers; the orbit and rendezvous Flight Dynamics Officers (call sign “FiDO”).  Shuttle mission STS-103, the third servicing mission to Hubble (called “3A”), was one of the first missions to occur after I assumed the Group Lead duties.  Besides needing to quickly learn the fundamentals of a different flight control position, I was learning how to cope in an entry level leadership role that involved leading people as its focus.  I was blessed with an outstanding team, which led me to one of my fundamental rules of leadership: set the direction, then get out of the way.  STS-109, the fourth servicing mission to Hubble (called “3B”) in March 2002, marked the end of a particular era for flight dynamics.  At this time, I was leading my group through a transition period in its computational engine and tools, and this mission marked for me a key point in my development as a leader: leading change.

Over seven years have passed since the last Hubble servicing mission, and for me those years have brought a number of changes about which I’ve written elsewhere (see The Journey).  My current tie to Hubble is through one of the key facilities used to train the astronauts for their Hubble repair tasks: the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is a key component of the strategic effort I’m now leading (see The NBL).  As I reflect upon the nineteen years and counting of Hubble, I’m humbled that I’ve been a part of human spaceflight at this particular point in time.  The shuttle missions to Hubble mark stages for my career at NASA like an old friend.  And like an old friend, it may not always be in the forefront of my day, yet I can always count on it to be there there when important events occur.  Thank you, Hubble!

Reflections on Hubble


“Without trust there is nothing.”






Trust.  Such a simple word, yet extremely powerful in meaning, impact, and importance to all of us.

This evening I began relaxing after my team and I achieved a very important milestone in our strategy development task.  We hosted a very successful two-day event with representatives from companies involved in “the space business” to share information and ideas.  When I reflected on all that we accomplished to make the last two days happen, one word came to mind:


I also reflected on trust when following today’s rendezvous operations between Atlantis and the Hubble Space Telescope.  For example, the crew onboard Atlantis places its trust in the calculations performed on the ground by the Flight Dynamics Officers to get the shuttle close enough to allow the crew to fly the rest of the rendezvous manually.  The trust is not blind: it is honed through repeated success in rendezvous operations in previous missions, and it is built through training and simulations.  The trust is mutual in that the flight controllers know that the crew will execute the plan successfully.

When I return to the events of the last two days with my team, we are building trust as well.  My organization’s leadership places trust in me that we will deliver.  I place trust in individual team members to deliver on particular parts. Likewise, they place trust in me that I will navigate them to a successful outcome.  Through success comes confidence, which leads to trust that we will achieved continued success through similar hard work.

Now, to the part that shows the greatest change in me: I place my trust in my organization’s leaders that they are setting a vision that will carry us to the future.  Why did I say “greatest change in me?”  For that, I need to go back a few years.

At that time, I was facing a fundamental leadership struggle.  I was seeking a way to be relevant as a leader in a role that does not lead to distinction in an every day sense.  Additionally, I was seeking to fuel my need to grow and learn in an organization that was rapidly converging on a role of repetition.  After the Columbia accident in 2003 and the subsequent announcement of a new vision for space exploration, I sensed that the game had changed.  I believed deeply that my organization would need to adapt to new realities and new ways of doing business to remain relevant and viable in the future.  Yet I saw the opposite: I observed entrenchment, embracing the status quo and defending the turf.  In a subsequent conversation with my then-leaders, I told them my views and vision for the future of the larger organization, and that I did not trust them to deliver on it.

Around this time I chose a new path of growth and development as a leader, about which I’ve written elsewhere (see The Journey).  While I was gone, new leadership began to emerge within my larger organization “back home” (I was in Washington, DC at the time).  I approached the new leader and began a series of leadership conversations with him.  I used all that I was learning about leadership at the time, and articulated the larger vision I had for our organization.  In subsequent updates, I began seeing many of the elements about which he and I spoke embraced in the organization’s vision.  Foremost of these is this: we will continue to excel in human mission operations while modernizing our capabilities, and will do so for a reduced fraction of the cost of our historic norms.  I viewed the latter part as the critical breakthrough: every dollar we save in operations cost becomes a dollar we can reinvest in our future or return to the American taxpayer.

When I returned home from Washington, DC, the ball was already rolling.  The organization was and still is being restructured, leadership is being aligned, realigned or replaced, and I’ve been given a key role in making the vision a reality.  I’ve been working hard for the last two years towards that end, and have achieved measurable results.  Success breeds confidence.  More is to come.  This leads me to the last two days of events being a part of all that, and the realization that the trust I didn’t give previously is now given, freely.

The circle of trust is now complete.



“The layers of multitasking can run very deeply in our daily lives”
–Mitch Thrower






Tomorrow is the scheduled launch of Atlantis on mission STS-125, the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.  This marks the fifth such mission to repair and upgrade Hubble since its initial launch on STS-31 nineteen years ago.  Many will be focused on this mission because of the fanfare surrounding Hubble itself as well as having two shuttles on the launch pad with one serving as the rescue mission should a problem arise with Atlantis.  It’s also personal for me in that I have a family friend flying on this mission, so I’ll be following the exploits closely.

Yet my day job doesn’t stop. My team and I are hosting an important event on Tuesday and Wednesday to get feedback from industry that will aid us with our strategic planning.  This is a critical event that has to occur now for us to get the information we need and for us to meet our ambitious schedule.  As hard as it is going to be, I’ll be following the mission when I can while hosting the event.  With a planned Monday launch, the rendezvous operations (which is my technical specialty) will occur Wednesday morning, right in the middle of important events.

So for me it’s a challenge in mutitasking: focusing on my choices to follow a mission in which I have great personal interest, and to host a critical event in my team’s strategic planning.

It’s an exciting time for multitasking!

On a special note, today is Mother’s Day.  I wish to send a very special thank you to my Mother for all your love and support in allowing me to pursue my dreams.  I love you, Mom!