End of NASA’s Human Spaceflight? Hardly.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” –Samuel Langhorne Clemens

If you’ve been following the news on the future of human spaceflight this week in advance of the release of the President’s 2011 budget on Monday, then I’m sure you’ve seen a number of reports about the supposed end of human spaceflight as we know it.  Much of this speculation is attributed to leaks from within NASA and the White House, fanned by quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere.   Two sources in particular that have caught my eye are http://www.nasawatch.com and http://www.spacepolitics.com.  I’ve read quite a bit of this speculation and decided it was time for me to give my two cents worth.

I find it interesting, and somewhat sad, how many of the supporters and critics in the blogosphere of NASA’s Constellation Program for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit are willing to believe any rumor, no matter how far fetched, and pronounce judgment on the situation with the tiniest amount of actual information.  So little reliable information is out in advance of the budget release on Monday that leaks and rumors get recycled and retold, even combined and distorted to appears as if it is new information.  The blogosphere has been active with so-called pundits interpreting this partial information, whether reliable or not, with ground pronouncements such as “the end of the Constellation Program” and “the end of human spaceflight” and everything in between.


Whether or not the President’s budget to be released on Monday infers a new human space policy due to changes in the Constellation Project, one thing seems clear to me.  A change in approach to sending humans into space is not equivalent to the end of the Constellation Program OR of human spaceflight.  It is not about Ares I and Ares V versus DIRECT, Jupiter, SDLVs, EELV, or commercial.  It’s about building a sustaining architecture for sending humans into space so that we can get on with the real objective: first-hand exploration and settlement of places beyond Earth.  To think that we would have all the answers on Day 1 on how to accomplish this is naive.  There will be course corrections due to technical, budgetary, schedule, and political matters.  We’re seeing all four influences right now with the current plan, which tells me that something is about to change; to ignore or deny those matters is foolhardy and irresponsible to the American taxpayer.  Because we might change, does this mean the workers and managers within NASA’s Constellation Program are somehow incompetent?  Hardly.  It’s about our ability to keep the end goal in sight, to adapt and react to a changing environment, and to build upon what we learn that will lead to success.

Come Monday, it will be alright – join me with getting on with the business of exploring and settling our universe. Ad astra!

End of NASA’s Human Spaceflight? Hardly.

A Great Start

“All things that are truly great are at first thought impossible.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

The team has been working for two weeks since my last post.  So far, the team is meeting the challenges of our project and is making great tangible progress towards our goal.  Here is what’s happened so far.

One of our first orders of business was to create a set of Norms of Behavior.  This is the set of behaviors that we all agreed to abide by in our daily interactions with each other.  Because we created it together, it engenders immediate buy-in from all members.  Our “contract” also stipulated that each of us has the responsibility to abide by the agreement and to hold each other accountable – that accountability is a shared function, not one solely in the hands of the leader.  Learning from my most recent experience, I posted the Norms of Behavior on the wall for all to see.  Sometimes, we may make a joke or a light-hearted comment on the spot about an entry on the list (such as “be nice to the person typing – it’s a hard job!”), yet I believe such demonstrations properly handled do more to reinforce the agreement rather than take away from it.  So far, the agreement is working extremely well to help our dialogues.

Repeating an exercise from my previous assignment, we did a self-assessment of each of our top three knowledge processing strengths from a list I placed on the whiteboard.  Much as in my previous assignment, some very enlightening results surfaced.  Here are the strengths and gaps of this eight-person team.  The numbers in parentheses show the number of people who identified that skill as a strength; the first number represents the team from my previous assignment, the second from the current team.

“Stir Up” Strengths

  • Experimenters (1,2) – those who keep trying different things to see what works
  • Originators (0,0) – those who keep creating and innovating
  • Questioners (1,4) – those who keep asking probing questions
  • Transformers (3,1) – those who develop existing knowledge
  • Seekers (1,2) – those who keep hunting for and gathering new knowledge

“Mobilize” Strengths

  • Accelerators (0,0) – those who transfer knowledge rapidly
  • Amplifiers (2,4) – those who make sure everyone knows
  • Channelers (2,1) – those who keep the distribution channels in good shape
  • Implementers (3,3) – those who apply knowledge to produce tangible results
  • Integrators (2,1) – those who identify valuable linkages
  • Multipliers (0,0) – those who use knowledge to generate new possibilities
  • Prioritizers (2,1) – those who focus knowledge generation and application on critical areas
  • Sense Makers (1,4) – those who interpret and translate for shared understanding
  • Validators (0,1) – those who keep testing the robustness of new knowledge

What I found interesting is that two of the key strengths – Questioners and Sense Makers – are well represented on this team; this is in contrast to my previous assignment, where those skills were under-represented on the team.  This bodes well for getting to the kernel of the ideas of our project. The current team is slightly under-represented in the Transformer strength compared with the previous team, where it was a shared strength of several members.  And as in my previous assignment, two other key strengths are under-represented – Originators and Validators.  This means the team will need to make a concerted effort to create new ideas, transform existing ones, and to test the robustness of those ideas.  The team and I have already talked briefly on how we might do that and will revisit again in the coming weeks as circumstances warrant.

Following the strengths exercise, we created a shared vision that described a compelling future state for our project.  To start this effort, we reviewed our organization’s vision document and some supplementary information from a management retreat in December.  This gave us the framework developed by our leadership team for our organization.  From there, the team took that material and focused on those aspects relevant to our project.  One team member took the leadership role to craft the ideas of the team into a vision statement, and another collected those same ideas for the vision statement and started crafting the next level of goals and objectives.  After reviewing and refining the products, the team created a drafted shared vision statement that, much as in the Norms of Behavior, engenders buy-in due to the collaboration.  We also have the first key cornerstone of our project – the shared vision – that will guide us throughout the project.  I shared highlights from the draft shared vision with my organization’s leadership and received a positive feedback.

Overall, we’re making excellent progress with several key products behind us – our Norms of Behavior, our knowledge processing strengths and gaps as a team identified, and our draft shared vision.  We will continue to drive towards our other key products in the coming weeks.  So far, it’s a great start!

A Great Start

A New Year, A New Team, and New Challenges

“Be thankful for each new challenge, because it will build your strength and character.”

It’s the start of the new year, and for me it’s the start of a new assignment, with a new team.

I met with the team for the first time today.  Some of the members I know from years supporting mission operations for the shuttle – we’ve worked on console together, played golf together, or worked in the same area for years and years.  Some of the members I met for the first time today.  I find it exciting to bring together talent from across the organization onto a team that will be tackling a very challenging project, given the nature of the project itself as well as the uncertainties and ambiguities in the future of human spaceflight we’re facing at the moment.  Each of the members was nominated by his/her managers for this assignment because the managers believe firmly that each member understands the business of his/her department while being capable of looking out for “the big picture” – what is best for mission operations, NASA, and the American taxpayer.

In kicking off a new team, what did I do?

First, I had the top leadership in our organization share their thoughts on the organization’s vision and key factors that will influence our project.  Call this “The Boss’s Expectations”, about which I’ve written before in Ask for Directions.  I see this step as being important to bootstrap our dialogue later in the week, when we will craft our shared vision and goals for our project.

Next, I shared my perspectives and background on the project.  I did a lot of impromptu talking, taking a page from my Kolbe analysis that encourages me to “wing it” and to place trust in my ability to share myself in a free-form manner.  I had each member introduce himself/herself, then I followed that up with my introduction and the reasons why I believe in our organization’s vision, and how I got there, which  I wrote about previously in The Journey.

Periodically, I stopped to gauge the members, reading body language (“nodding off?”, “crossed arms”) and to ask questions.  I realize that at this time, the members are unfamiliar with the details of the project and thus are dealing with a lot of “unknown unknowns.”  As our dialogue continued and confidence grew, a few “known unknowns” surfaced as reflected by questions from the team.  Right now, most of the team is in Quadrant 1 of the awareness-ability matrix (“I don’t know what I don’t know”), which I wrote about in Awareness-Ability Matrix and Achieving Mastery. That’s perfectly OK.  As demonstrated by the progress from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” today, the team will move through the quadrants of the awareness-ability matrix in the coming weeks.

Another important dialogue we had today was when I shared my expectations.  Here, I framed my expectations around several cornerstones.  First, I shared my expectation that we will demonstrate good decision-making behaviors (about which I wrote in Behaviors That Help/Hinder Good Decision Making) and that we would apply the best of the six types of decision making processes to the situation at hand (which I wrote about in The Six Decision Making Processes).  The important point is that although much of our decision-making will be through consensus, not all of it will be.  When appropriate, we will use spontaneous agreement, one person decides, and multi-voting.  In extremely rare cases we may use compromise and majority voting.  Next, I shared my expectation that we will function as a team as opposed to a group, and defined the differences between the two (covered here).  I also shared my expectation that we will have the four different types of conversations at various times – information sharing, planning, problem solving, and relationship building (which I wrote about in The Four Types of Team Conversations) – and that the latter is extremely important to build the currency we need to enable effectiveness in the other three.  I think I saw some positive signs when I defined relationship building conversations being as eating lunch together, or taking off an afternoon to catch a ballgame this spring!

We covered a few logistics and schedule items, and before I knew it, the end of the afternoon arrived.

As you can see, I made a lot of use of lessons learned and work product from my most recent team leading experience.  I found this blog to be an invaluable resource for me to reinforce the learning I went through a year ago, building upon that experience to start this team right.  Sure, it was some “drinking from the firehose” for the team members, yet I believe that we’re off on the right foot and will build upon today, to achieve the shared vision and goals we’ll set for ourselves later this week.

As always, stay tuned…

A New Year, A New Team, and New Challenges