Change


“Plus ça change,
Plus c’est la même chose,
The more that things change,
The more they stay the same.”
–Rush “Circumstances” from “Hemispheres” (1978)

At the time of this writing I’ve been reading the final report from the Augustine Committee and reflecting on the near-term future of human spaceflight.  Like many of my colleagues, I’m curious about the guidance and policy decisions forthcoming from the Obama administration and Congress.  As I gaze into my crystal ball, I believe there is one thing we can count on:

Change.

With respect to change, one fundamental question comes to my mind: how does one implement effective change across a broad and diverse agency such as NASA?  Over the years, I’ve encountered various change approaches.  Part of me wonders if the various approaches I’ve learned through “book learning” can be translated into actual success when implementing change in the public sector.  Here, I’m talking about approaches such as Kotter’s Eight Steps, another one that matches the change process to the change challenge, and many others.

Recently, I read about a study conducted by Booz-Allen-Hamilton on “What It Takes to Change Government,” posted on govexec.com.  The report cites ten characteristics public sector leaders had in common who successfully enacted change, and furthermore offers that these characteristics are missing from other leaders who failed to enact successful change.  Of the ten characteristics identified in the report, two in particular caught my eye and will be the topic of this post:

1) Fewer goals, greater success

Let’s start with goals.  What is the goal of NASA?  Over the years, there have been various mission statements, goal statements, and the like.  All of them strike me as having been crafted in smoky back rooms by political appointees catering to every special interest within NASA, and even outside.  As a result, none have stuck with me.  In fact, go to NASA’s website and see if you can find an overarching simple-to-understand goal statement.  You won’t find one.

Now, do an informal poll of space enthusiasts both within and outside NASA and ask, “What should NASA’s goal be?”  I bet from a majority you’ll get a simple answer: to establish a permanent and sustainable human presence off our planet.  The even more inspirational phraseology I like is “to become a multi-planet species.”  In either case, I see it as a matter of ensuring the survival of humanity.  Between humankind’s mismanagement of our home planet through overpopulation, pollution and global wars, and the potential for natural disasters, there are a number of ways that the human race could end.  How better to hedge our bets than by settling other places beyond Earth?

If NASA could rally around a simple goal, imagine the energy that would result from within and the support from outside NASA.

2) Focus on customers

Next, let’s talk about customers.  Who is NASA’s customer?  I offer that in the direct sense, NASA does not have a customer; NASA does not offer a product or service that is consumed directly (ask Dennis Tito).  Instead of customer, how about we consider “stakeholder”?  If so, that would include the U.S. government, the American public, the scientific and education communities, the industrial base and commercial business interests, and human civilization as a whole.  In addressing stakeholders, we are an arm of the President in that we enact executive policy; of Congress in that we are funded by and exist in many of the congressional districts; of the scientific and educational communities in that we expand the frontiers of knowledge and share that with future generations; and of the American public and human civilization as a whole (see my comment on goals).  This is a tall order, and in my opinion makes this aspect of change management quite a challenge.

When I look ahead to the greatest challenges facing NASA to embrace the change to come, I see the ultimate success rooted in our ability to clearly articulate the goal we’re working towards, and for the work to directly benefit a clear customer or stakeholder.  Failure to do so greatly increases the risk that any change will be unsuccessful, and we’ll be left where we’ve been since the end of Apollo, with no clear mandate and wondering about our future… in space, and as a civilization.

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Change