Realigning US Human Spaceflight, Part 2: Strategy

“Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.”
–John Kotter

As I wrote last time, the US human spaceflight endeavor has all the earmarks of a realignment situation, as described by the STaRS model in “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins.  I described why the diagnosis is as such, and hinted at what needs to be done to transition from realignment to sustaining success.  In all recovery situations, and clearly it is the case for NASA’s human spaceflight organizations, there are pockets of strength, and a strong desire for seeking success from the NASA workforce.  These can form the precipitating points around which the recovery cycle can be initiated.  To craft the strategy requires building upon these precipitation points as well as identification and understanding of the challenges that underlie a realignment situation.  Simply put, the challenges to be addressed are denial, organizational cultural norms, and focus.

As Watkins points out, one of the key hurdles for an organization in a realignment situation is one of denial about the situation.  Read any of the popular space blogs out there (NASAWatch.com, spacepolitics.com, etc.) and you will see commentary from those whose words express denial.  Even the recent good intentions meant by our elected representatives in Congress can lead to the greatest harm by reinforcing denial through statements concerning “the gap” and for extending shuttle.  Clearly, convincing employees and key stakeholders that change is necessary is a must.  Therefore, the NASA leadership should make it a priority to reach out to key stakeholders in Congress, its employees, and space supporters and teach them about the problems we face.  All of the information is there: the Augustine committee report, the President’s 2011 budget, and so on; it’s up to the leadership to integrate that information and communicate it in a compelling and convincing way.  Therefore, one of the first action plans needed is one on communicating why change is necessary.

Another challenge for the realignment situation is dealing with the deeply ingrained organizational cultural norms that are getting in the way of achieving a sustainable and permanent human presence beyond earth.  “Routine access to low earth orbit is the domain of the government”, for example, or “we simply need more money.”  The President’s 2011 budget contains a break with the paradigm in the example by promoting the use of commercial carriers for routine access to low earth orbit.  NASA has previously awarded contracts for commercial cargo resupply to the International Space Station.  The President’s budget also allocates a significant fraction towards the development and demonstration of technologies we will need to develop a meaningful human exploration enterprise beyond low earth orbit.  Reestablishment of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is a step in the direction towards re-embracing NASA’s role in identifying and developing innovative technology in a way that cannot be accomplished in the private sector.  Tying the pieces together in a public-private partnership could form the foundation of an incredible cultural shift that will advance sustainability and exploration in ways we cannot imagine at the outset.  Finally, realigning NASA’s operations organizations with their incredibly rich and valuable history into development organizations and elements of the public-private partnership will be an important enabler of the approach.  Therefore, the next element of the plan is to define the details behind the public-private partnership and organizational realignment needed in US human spaceflight that preserves the best of what we have while moving us ahead.

The third challenge is one of focus, specifically towards “learning” versus “doing.”  As Watkins writes, the correct balance of learning and doing differs strikingly in the four STaRS situations.  In the case of a realignment situation, the emphasis is on “taking the offensive” with learning and careful preparation.  (This is difficult for me; although I value learning and discovery, I’m all about action when confronted with a challenge or new situation.)  Exploring potential “land mines” is also part of the learning process.  I conclude by the rough rollout of the President’s budget that learning and careful preparation was not a part of the approach; I’ll call this one of the land mines, chalk it up as a lesson learned, and encourage that we move forward from here.  Learning and careful preparation will take time, and given the track record so far, will be messy.  It’s important that we are patient (and I’m saying this as much for my benefit as anyone else’s) and supportive as we develop and implement the plans I outlined above.

I’ll be interested to see if the upcoming Space Summit featuring President Obama on April 15 in Florida will validate the above approach.  I hope you’ll join me in watching it and supporting us as we move forward in a brave new world of US human spaceflight.

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Realigning US Human Spaceflight, Part 2: Strategy