Closure, and What’s Next?

“You always hope for closure.”
–Jerry Huffman






I see I left everyone hanging with my last blog entry.

The day after I posted my last entry (see Caught in the Middle), two key NASA executives negotiated an agreement that led to the approval of the team’s strategy for the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility.  The team and I have been working on this strategy for nine months, and it feels tremendous to get the strategy approved.


I’ve been enjoying the time since then, handing over details to the new leader who will see to the implementation of the strategy, and helping the team on an item or two, as I await word of my next assignment.

Meanwhile, I started today in my official capacity as a mentor to a young NASA engineer.  She and I had our first meeting today, and I’m looking forward to our mentoring partnership.  I shared with her my paraphrase of the Richard Feynman quote, when she asked me why I had volunteered to be a mentor: the learning process is not complete for me until I share it with someone else.

It’s going to be a nice, relaxing time as I continue to reflect and review my experiences over the last nine months, and prepare for the assignment to come.  Meanwhile, I’ll be shifting gears to write about different topics.  I’m already working on my first one.

Until then, keep on making a difference!

Closure, and What’s Next?

Caught in the Middle

“Refusing to ask for help when you need it is refusing someone the chance to be helpful.”
–Ric Ocasek






Did I mention that the team is still awaiting approval of our strategy?

Oh yes, I did. I’m starting to sound like a broken record.

This morning I was greeted by an email that basically said HQ did not approve our latest revised strategy.  I took the first of several head-clearing walks today in beautiful weather and reflected on the message.

“Did not approve.”

As a developing leader seeking to learn from my experiences, I reflected on the outcome and asked myself the question: “What could I have done differently that would have led to approval?”  It was a nice day today, and I wasn’t in a rush to head back to my training class, so I continued my walk.  I ran into a colleague – not just any colleague, but the team leader on my previous assignment (I was his deputy) – and shared with him the latest news.  Mainly, I was seeking his insights on what I could have done differently if he were in my shoes. The answer: nothing.

On a later head-clearing walk, I conversed with my boss to seek his insights.  He shared some additional details to which he was privy (and I was not yet), and basically reaffirmed the earlier message: nothing.

So, I’m getting a consistent message that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have altered the outcome.  Now for a person like me driven by a model of leadership centered around alignment, actions, and results, I’m left with a puzzling situation: what do I do next? What is my next step?

Clearly, my next step was to get more information.  Actually, I didn’t have to seek far – the information came to me via trusted sources.  Basically, I’m caught in the middle of what appears to be politics and conflicts between key decision makers.  The details are not important for this entry.  Instead, the mere fact that politics and conflicts should be a factor in decision making is the point.  Something that I learned during my time in the NASA leadership development program is that politics and other soft factors become greater factors in decision-making at the higher levels of leadership.  In contrast, lower levels decisions are driven by technical, schedule, and financial reasons.  When I consider the work of the team, I see a very strong strategy built upon clearly rational technical, schedule, and financial bases.  Yet softer considerations are either getting in the way of clear decision making, or are bringing to bear factors that we haven’t considered in our strategy.  Either way, I’m in a position where I don’t know what my next step should be.  That is what led to my head-clearing walks.

Then it hit me. When one doesn’t know what to do, what should one do?

Ask for help.

Understand that as a developing leader, I want to demonstrate competence and capability to lead, so that I will get future opportunities to lead and continue my growth and development.  My natural inclination is to rely upon my own resources to meet the goals of the organization, galvanize the action of the team, and get the results we seek.  Asking for help is tough.  Yet here I am, typing this entry and watching SportsCenter on ESPN showing a segment on USC football, with the lead-in song, “Lean on Me.”  It’s the universe talking to me, amplifying the message of today.

Sometimes, we have to lean on others, and when I realized that, I knew my next step was to ask for help.  So I did.  Turns out that my leadership had already set forth on the next step, to get the key executives together so that we can have a thorough conversation on the strategy.  It could happen as soon as tomorrow.  Or it might be next week.

In any case, what I learned by being caught in the middle is that there is always a next step.  Sometimes it’s a simple as asking for help.

Caught in the Middle

Trust, but Verify

“Trust, but Verify.”
–Ronald Reagan







Each day brings the team closer to an approved strategy. As I have written recently, we are so close that the team has transitioned to the next step under new leadership, and I’ve been enjoying Stage 5 of the lifecycle of a team (see What to Leave, and What to Take).  Yet there are some days when it seems the end goal moves a step away instead of closer, which leads me to today’s topic on trust.  I’ve written about trust previously (see Trust).  Today I am going to expand the topic slightly to contrast between unconditional trust and conditional trust, and specifically address the latter in the form of “Trust, but Verify.”

(Aside: As many of you likely did, I first encountered the phrase “Trust, but Verify” during the Cold War years.  The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, chose to use the Russian proverb, “doveryai, no proveryai – Trust, but Verify” in discussing relations with the Soviet Union. )

“Trust, but Verify” resurfaced in my consciousness in response to an event from today.  The team’s revised strategic plan has been undergoing final reviews for the past month, and as a part of the review process we receive some questions from NASA Headquarters. We provided our written responses to the appropriate personnel in our support organization, who would review then forward the responses to NASA Headquarters for final review.  It’s a somewhat cumbersome process and takes time.

We submitted our most recent set of updates about 2 weeks ago.  I didn’t hear anything for a few days, so I checked with my main point of contact in the support organization.  Nothing.  Finally, last Friday I received a note from him that there was more feedback for me to disposition and that the information would be provided on Tuesday.  My contact didn’t go into detail about the nature of the feedback, and with it being the Labor Day weekend I decided not to press the issue.  It could wait until Tuesday, I felt.

When I received the feedback today, I was shocked that it was from the local review and not NASA Headquarters.  With over a week having lapsed, I assumed the local support organization had reviewed the package, forwarded it, and that the feedback was from NASA Headquarters.  No, that wasn’t the case at all.  The package had sat for over a week in the local office with no one taking action on it to send to NASA Headquarters.  It wasn’t until someone from NASA Headquarters called the support organization to ask, “Where is the updated package?” that the support organization realized it was sitting around waiting for disposition.  They quickly reviewed it and sent my point of contact a few minor comments that I needed to fix before they would forward it.  I was beside myself.

What happened?

I placed my trust in a review process and limited my status checks to one point, namely to my point of contact who served as my entry point to the review process.  Unfortunately, he is but one cog in the review process and has limited insight or influence over the rest of it.  I learned an important lesson today.  I should extend “Trust, but Verify” to all levels of the support organization and that I should not hesitate to apply it where warranted.  If it means picking up the phone to call the director or deputy director of the support organization, then I should do it without hesitation.

Perhaps this whole experience makes obvious sense in hindsight, in that trust has to be earned.  The support organization has let me down on several occasions over the last eight nine months.  If that is not an indicator of an organization not deserving unconditional trust, then I don’t know what is.  “Trust, but Verify” is my new mantra with them, as it should have been all along.


Trust, but Verify