Can Failure Lead to Success?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
–Thomas Edison






When does not receiving approval for an approach constitute a success?

The team has been working for six months on a strategic plan for two of NASA’s key facilities in Houston.  This week marked the culmination of that effort, where we presented our plan before key Agency executives for review and approval.  We spent months developing the plan and most recently completed a series of reviews in Houston before heading to DC for the final review this week.

Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work…” came to mind immediately as the executives were asking us questions about our strategic approach.  The team demonstrated that it did due diligence to the approach we proposed, exemplified by the details and supporting rationale we shared.  As the conversation ensued, the team felt validated that we brought forward the best possible plan under a particular set of assumptions and guidance.  From the Agency executives, we received frank feedback and a new set of guidance.  All of them thanked us for the due diligence and creativity we demonstrated in our approach.

Where rocket science meets public space policy, the trade space of possible solutions is quite large.  Given the uncertainties we are facing in the near future with shuttle retirement, a new NASA Administrator, an Augustine commission that can suggest who knows what, and no clear announced space policy from the Obama administration, we are faced with an extremely challenging situation.  I strongly believed my team performed well, which I felt was validated by the words from the Agency executives.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my own performance as a leader afterwards.  Between conversations with a key mentor at NASA HQ afterwards, sipping on a beer while waiting for my plane at National, looking out the window during the flight home, and conversations with my team, I reviewed the experiences of the last six months and asked, “How did I do? What can I do better next time?”

Really, there is always room for improvement.  Yet in the big picture, I needed to go through this process – in fact, all of us needed to go through this process – to set the stage for the bigger success to come.  Is that a failure? Perhaps of the specific strategy we proposed, yet not for the end goal.  We can rally around the feedback and new guidance we received, build upon our previous work, and develop an altered strategic plan that will provide the best value to NASA and continue to demonstrate strong stewardship of the American taxpayer dollar.  It is that fact that renews my determination to lead the team through the next stage of development, and renews the team’s faith in me to lead them.  That is success.

Can Failure Lead to Success?

Leadership Lesson from Apollo to Now

“To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.”
–Benjamin Franklin






Earlier this week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first footsteps on the Moon.  One of the celebratory events associated with the anniversary, and some feedback I received recently, have a connection that is the topic of today’s entry.

Warping back a few weeks, I received a very kind piece of constructive feedback concerning my blog entries.  I’m sharing it here with some slight edits to protect the anonymity of the offeror:

“As a team leader … I was given the riot act from some of the team for using terms like:

  • my guys …
  • my team …
  • my challenge (when referring to tasks the team was working, and not just me) …

They told me that they were not ‘mine’ and that they did not belong to me. They said that my talking that way was arrogant and demeaning.

I did not like the idea of hearing this of course, because I want to always be excellent.  However, upon reflection, I considered what it would be like if my leadership talked that way about me, as if I belonged to them.  I did not like that feeling at all. It would create a feeling of separation and alienation toward my leadership if they actually did talk like that about me.

So, I started using terms like:

  • we all …
  • our team …
  • our challenge …

It was actually better for me and the team to talk this way because it really did make the team closer and more productive.”

I realize that I write in the former style, yet I don’t believe I speak that way at the office about my team and teammates.  I reflected on the feedback briefly and ask myself the question: what if I actually did, and I’m not realizing it?

Now, let’s fast forward a few weeks to the recent Apollo 11 celebrations.  In particular, I was very interested in the John Glenn Lecture Series hosted by the National Air and Space Museum on Sunday.  This year featured talks from Chris Kraft, the first Flight Director in Mission Control, and the three Apollo 11 crew members, whom we all know so well – Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Neil Armstrong.  If you want to watch it for yourself, it’s on YouTube:


I was especially excited at the prospect of hearing Armstrong speak – he rarely makes public appearances or speeches.  As I listened to the talks, I noted key contrasts.  In particular, I noted what Armstrong said – or actually, what he didn’t say.

He never said “I.”

Even when making a reference to the tremendous achievements of Apollo 11, he spoke in the third person and allowed the achievements to speak for themselves, all without needing to associate himself as a part.  It is about the achievement, not the man.  This is the most extreme form of humility I’ve ever seen.  He is indeed the greatest possible caretaker of being the first human to set foot on the Moon.

So, we have here an extreme in contrasts: a first-person writing style, and a third person speaking style.

Does this mean that a first person writing style is the opposite of humility – of arrogance?  At least in the case when the possessive first person possessive pronouns are used, it sure can seem that way – as the feedback indicates. My team; my guys; my challenge.  After all, I don’t own them, and if we truly are a team, the challenges aren’t mine alone – they are shared challenges.  I revisited the question I asked and added the corollary: is speaking with first person possessive pronouns an attempt at communicating importance, superiority, or other attribute not earned? That is a tough question.

Before it appears that I’m being somewhat hard on a first person writing style, I’ll offer this: I do believe a first person writing style, when used properly, has the potential to convey a degree of personalization, closeness and association not possible through other forms of writing.  Therefore, the challenge before me is to marry the two: to convey a personal yet humble touch.  I believe it is possible to do so.  Such attention to writing will spill over to all forms of communications, and by association I’ll have the answer to the questions posed in this entry, based upon servant leadership:

“There is no I in TEAM.”

Let’s see what happens!

Leadership Lesson from Apollo to Now

Running the Gauntlet

“Accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.”
–General George S. Patton





What a week.

This week the team survived three challenging reviews of our strategic plan.  It wasn’t easy.

First, I got stuck by bad weather on Sunday as I was attempting to fly home from vacation in eastern Tennessee.  I didn’t make it home in time for the first review.  Because I’m blessed with super teammates, one stepped forward and covered for me at the first review Monday morning.

Second, at each review with successively higher managers, we kept getting asked questions that I wish we would have been asked earlier.  My team shares high expectations of ourselves, in part because the team reflects the values of its leader.  To get the kinds of questions we did in these reviews brought out frustrations on the team as to why we weren’t asked these before by our support organizations, and as to why did we not anticipate these particular questions arising.

The team was feeling down in the dumps especially after the second review.  One of my teammates remarked, “We did A+ work, we deserved an A+, yet we didn’t get an A+ today.”  We talked as a team about the experience and sought the positives from it.  It helped, some.  After that session, I contacted my leadership and asked for some help. After our third meeting the director told the team that there will be days when questions will come from left field.  We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished, and that in their eyes we’re doing a good job.  That helped even more.

So, stepping back for a minute, here is the big picture.  Despite the hiccup on Monday, and the questions seemingly from left field, we survived.  We ran the gauntlet of three reviews, and except for minor editorial changes to our strategic plan and for the need to provide some additional substantiating materials, we are still on course for our final briefing to executives at NASA Headquarters.  Any one of those reviews this past week could have sent us back for rework, leading to delays.  None did.  And by my measure, that is the ultimate success – the best possible outcome from this week of reviews.  When the team reflected on that, we looked back on the week as a positive learning experience from which we will emerge stronger for it.

And our strategic plan will be better for it, too.

Running the Gauntlet

How Much Should it Cost to Operate the International Space Station?

“The United States segment of the ISS is hereby designated a national laboratory.”
–Sec 507 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act





I’m taking a break from writing about my experiences in leading a team to share an intriguing topic from my recent past.  The motivation is from some light reading I did while on vacation. (Yeah yeah, I know – a vacation is meant as an opportunity to get away, yet I’m compelled to read.)  During this past week I read a paper written by Eva-Jane Lark (@EVA_Interviews on Twitter) for the 2006 International Space Development Conference entitled, “Investment Financing of Exploration to New Worlds.” It’s a fascinating paper which you can download from here.  While I was reading it, I was struck by some analogies Eva made that were similar to some I made in a different context.  It is that context that I’m going to share with you today, simply put as this: How much SHOULD it cost to operate the International Space Station each year?

The obvious answer is that “it costs what it costs.”  Yet that answer does not sit well with me.  NASA is dealing with never-ending budgetary challenges, and answers like that are irresponsible in my view to the American taxpayer.  Every dollar we spend in operations costs is a dollar taken away from development and exploration, which is what I view as the true mission of NASA.  I was slowly formulating this point as one of my personal values while I was in NASA’s leadership development program and articulated as much to a NASA executive one evening at a social gathering. A few months later he gave me the opportunity to “put my money where my mouth was” and issued me a challenge: figure out how the annual operations cost of ISS compares with other “similar entities.”

I accepted the challenge, and paused immediately: what is a “similar entity” to ISS?

The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the US segment of the ISS as a national laboratory and directed NASA to develop a plan to “increase the utilization of the ISS by other Federal entities and the private sector…”.  So, one obvious direct and relevant comparison would be to compare the cost to operate ISS versus the cost to operate other national labs.  Yet is that a fair comparison?  Other national labs are not in orbit 200 miles above the earth and don’t have to deal with the extreme and harsh conditions of low earth orbit.  So merely performing a comparison against other national labs would be incomplete, in my opinion.  Well, there are classes of national labs that do exist in extreme conditions – the various research bases in Antarctica, such as McMurdo Station and the South Pole Station.  Better, but still not an exact match.

Really, there is no exact analog of the ISS to be found, at least in the very brief six weeks I had available to do my study.  There are entities that come close, but not close enough.  Therefore, I chose to gather data on as many “near-similar” entities as I could get quickly, based upon various characteristics in common with ISS, analyze the data associated with the annual operations costs of each, and draw conclusions based upon the comparative analysis.  Here are the six major characteristics that drive the operations costs for ISS and families of entities I identified as having that characteristic:

  1. High dollar-cost entities that have labor costs constituting an appreciable fraction of the operations cost – Aircraft Carrier Programs (conventional and nuclear)
  2. Entities that are research oriented and are funded within the federal budgetary environment – NASA Research Centers, Federal Laboratories (such as Berkeley National Lab, Los Alamos, and the South Pole Station) and Federal Projects (such as Keck Observatory)
  3. Entities that have a focus on research and development – Drug/Pharmaceutical Companies, Biotechnology Companies, Semiconductor Companies and Computer Storage Device Companies
  4. Entities with an exploration focus – Independent Oil & Gas Companies
  5. Entities that involve the operation of ground- and space-based infrastructures – Satellite-Based Operations Companies (such as Iridium, DirecTV, and Sirius Satellite Radio)
  6. High dollar-cost entities that operate for long periods of time as self-contained environments – Nuclear Powered Submarine Programs

The next challenge is this: how should the annual operations costs for the above be analyzed on a level playing field?  The choice I made was to make a comparison on something I call the “capitalization” cost, defined roughly as the value of the entity.  For ISS, this is easily understood in terms of the cost to build it in the first place.  Other similar values can be obtained for the entities based upon construction cost, replacement value, or market capitalization.  What is interesting, and perhaps somewhat intuitive, is that the annual operations cost for each of the above entities is somewhat related to the capitalization cost: in general, the more expensive the entity is in capitalization, the more expensive its annual operations cost is likely to be.  I chose entities within the above families with capitalization costs above and below ISS.  Although the cost to build ISS is fairly large in everyday terms at roughly $25 billion (not including launch costs), many of the large commercial companies in my sample population, such as pharmaceuticals, have capitalization costs that are much larger than that of ISS.  I found 60 entities that bracketed ISS in capitalization cost, ranging from capitalization costs of $100 million (with an “M”) to $100 billion (with a “B”).  Roughly 20% of the entities in the sample were above ISS in capitalization cost.

Once I gathered the data for my entities, the next step was to determine where ISS fell in comparison.  The method I chose was through statistical analysis, from which I built a model that would predict an annual operations cost based upon a given capitalization cost.  Using capitalization costs and annual operations costs for the above entities, and a little linear regression, I built a model that predicts an annual operations cost (in 2005 dollars) of $2.4 billion for the ISS. The nature of statistics is in predicting probabilities, not certainties; the relevant quantity here is that the model predicts a lower bound annual operations cost of about $1.2 billion and a upper bound of about $6 billion (again, all in 2005 dollars).  So, how well does ISS’s actual annual operations cost match the model?  Actually, fairly well.  At the time of my study, the ISS annual operations cost was around $1.3 billion (in 2005 dollars), which says it is near the lower bound that the model predicts.  You can read the gory details here.

What I concluded from my study is this: the annual operations budget for ISS is about as low as it can go given the investment made in the infrastructure.  (Some out-year planning had a higher operations cost, closer to the $2.4 billion value, and it is those years that I would encourage us to look at carefully when those years are ready for appropriations.)  However, there is a BIG and important underlying assumption in the comparison: that ISS produces results on par with the entities in the sample.  One can spend tremendous amounts of money building something, and each year in operating it; yet if the results aren’t there, what have we gained?  I see a strong need for a right-sized operations cost built in partnership with OMB and Congress, one at a level necessary to operate a $25 billion dollar investment.  I also see a strong need for NASA to better communicate the purpose and results we are achieving with ISS.  I assert (and this is my position alone and does not represent any official policy from NASA) that we need to achieve and share compelling results comparable to the entities in the study to justify the cost of ISS as a national lab.   Now that we have a six-person crew on board ISS, we’re out of excuses. It’s time to produce.

I hope my bosses are reading this.

How Much Should it Cost to Operate the International Space Station?