Challenger and Complexity

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
–Ronald Reagan


The last week of January is a time when those of us in the human spaceflight business pause to reflect on our colleagues who made the ultimate sacrifice in pushing the boundaries of space exploration.  The Apollo 1 pad fire in 1967, the Challenger accident in 1986, and the loss of Columbia in 2003 all happened roughly during this week in their respective years.  Yesterday morning, the team and I stood outside during the missing man flyover, each of us in our private thoughts on where we were on those occasions.  In particular, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident.  Some of us were early in our careers with NASA in 1986.  The accident left a lasting impression on many us, where we vowed never to let it happen again.  Some of us joined shortly after and were quickly indoctrinated into the same mindset.  Yet despite the best of efforts and intentions, it happened again.

In the course of thinking strategically for the future of mission operations, the team raised and discussed the topic of complexity on numerous occasions in recent days.  Yes, human spaceflight is a complex endeavor – that’s why it’s called “rocket science”, with that air of difficulty implying that only the best and brightest can rise to meet the challenge.  Until now, human spaceflight was solely in the domain of the Government.  Tomorrow, we may see commercial companies providing routine access to low earth orbit for far less in cost than that provided by Government-owned systems.  This is a tough business – will the commercial efforts succeed?

Deep in my heart, I feel that complexity is in part a natural order of things, and in part a consequence of what we do to ourselves.  The Challenger accident is an example of both.  The accident was as much a result of operating outside the tested conditions (in this case, cold temperatures) as it was a result of the complex decision-making systems and organizations intended to provide rigor and thoroughness, but led to an unintended consequence – the stifling of sound engineering recommendations.  The imposed complexities inherent in Government-owned human spaceflight systems were a part of the business then, as they are now.  As the team considered this point, we asked the question: are the imposed complexities really needed?

From the inside as we are, these are hard questions to answer.  Over 50 years we’ve built a methodology, an approach, a culture, to human spaceflight operations to meet the challenges we’ve faced over the years – technical, budgetary, workforce, and political.  Perhaps all that is needed to move forward is a commitment to reduce and eliminate imposed complexity.  Perhaps an outsider’s view of what is inherent complexity and what is imposed is necessary to bring clarity.  Perhaps waiting until one or more commercial space companies successfully send cargo and crew to low earth orbit, and back home safely again, is the proof of unnecessary imposed complexity that some require.  Personally, I’m in the first camp, and it is my challenge to the team to question, identify, and find ways to get rid of imposed complexity in our quest to make human spaceflight successful.

It’s the least we can do for the legacy of Challenger, Apollo 1, and Columbia.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of NASA


Challenger and Complexity

Strategic Thinking

“Uncertainty is the new certainty.”
–Joe Williams


It’s the end of the second week and the team has made excellent progress.

A recent blog post by Holly G. Green puts an excellent perspective on what the team has been doing over the last two weeks.  Although I’ve called this activity in the past “strategic planning”, in reality it is very much what Holly calls it: strategic thinking.

To help set the stage, earlier this week the Director of Mission Operations at NASA, Paul Hill, spoke on about the valuable role to be played by NASA’s mission operations in the future of human spaceflight. Central to his message is the concept of not being locked into one way of doing business, based upon “the way we’ve always done it”; instead, embracing new ideas and understanding that change is part of the reality we face near term in moving human spaceflight forward.  I’m very pleased that many of the topics he addressed in the interview were covered in personal exchanges he and I had as I was preparing for the current assignment.  (I’d like to think I planted a few of the seeds that sprouted into the words and vision he shared in the interview, but that may be somewhat presumptuous.  Nevertheless, he and I are on the same page.)

Which brings me to what the team has accomplished over the last two weeks.

Clearly, an understanding and appreciation of the situation we face is critical to moving forward.  To do this, we reviewed several foundational tenets of mission operations: why we exist, what our guiding principles are, the direction we are headed organizationally, and the strategic priorities of the organization.  For your benefit, all of these are addressed quite eloquently in Paul’s interview, so I won’t repeat them here.

One important item that we discussed further is also key to enabling strategic thinking: the value proposition.  The value proposition is the value the organization brings in the eyes of its key stakeholders in terms of the value equation, about which I’ve written before.  (Refresher: the value equation is value = benefit – cost.)  We spent some time in defining the value our organization brings to the future of human spaceflight, and in identifying who the key stakeholders are.  This is important, because later we will put ourselves in the shoes of our stakeholders and ask: “Have we hit the mark with our strategic approach value-wise?  Are we bringing value with our approach?”  Later, we will validate our approach with all our key stakeholders directly.  Some of the stakeholders view the value equation quite literally, in terms of units of currency.  Other, more mission-focused stakeholders look at one or both in terms of other units that are harder to quantify.  One stakeholder in particular – the astronaut corps – look at both in very stark and ultimate terms, clearly because it is their lives that are on the line.

With the above as the foundation of strategic thinking, the team is embarking on a journey to define a broad path forward for human spaceflight operations.  Clearly, we can’t lock into just one possible future, because it likely won’t come to pass.  Relying upon the status quo and “business as usual” is likely an untenable path, too.  Because we can’t predict the future, we will rely upon the direction set by the organization and take into account in our strategy the flexibility we will need to alter course as time passes and new events come to bear.  I told the team “uncertainty is the new certainty” – it is to be embraced.  For a group of rocket scientists, they are managing this reality quite well!

(For more on strategic thinking, I highly encourage you to visit Holly’s blog.)


Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto


Strategic Thinking

Team Charter

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
–Ryunosuke Satoro


Have you ever lead a team in an uncertain and ambiguous environment, with team members who technically outrank you organizationally?

Welcome to my world.

Over the last few months, I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into tactics and approaches to building and leading high performance teams to increase the likelihood of success.  In the realm of human spaceflight where I live, we’re facing huge changes; the shuttle is to be retired later this year, and last year the follow-on human spaceflight endeavor went from certainty of purpose (return to the moon and go to Mars) into uncertainty and ambiguity (hand over routine access to low earth orbit to commercial firms, and focus NASA on “out there”, wherever that is).

That is the environment of today’s world in NASA’s human spaceflight realm; yet as I’ve said before, uncertainty and ambiguity is a poor excuse for sitting around and not taking action.

I’ve been tasked to lead a team to chart a course through this sea of uncertainty and put together a strategy on how we are to buy the goods and services we need to make human spaceflight operations successful.  In part, this may entail supporting Government-owned operations analogous to what we’ve done in the recent past, such as for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station; in part, this may entail the building of public-private partnerships with the emerging commercial space sector to help them succeed in providing routine access to low earth orbit.  Whether it is one or the other, or both, it is hard stuff.  Besides all the uncertainty that lingers, we’re talking about fundamental change, or at the very least an open mind to change.

With all of this, where are we to start?

I chose to start with a very fundamental element: the team charter.  Yeah, I know, I’m dealing with a bunch of rocket scientists who deal with details, processes, equations, and numbers that can kill people.  I’ll admit that I was somewhat reluctant inside to start the first week with the team on a conversation about a “soft subject” like a team charter.  Yet I chose to overcome my uncertainty and build upon what I’ve done previously, and proposed we adopt a full-blown team charter.  In my view, such a charter defines the purpose of the team, expected outcomes and success criteria, and rules of engagement for describing how the team will work together.  By creating the charter with the team at the outset, it ought to build a shared understanding of why the team exists and what it is trying to accomplish.

Part 1: Purpose. Why is the team being created? What is our purpose?

For the team’s purpose, I stated why we were formed and the challenges we face.  Whatever we propose as a strategy, we must consider how that strategy fits with larger question concerning our organization: Why does our organization exist?  What are the organization’s guiding principles?  What value does the organization offer to its key stakeholders?  We had several excellent conversations around these items, and I captured the key responses as part of the purpose statement.

Part 2: Expected Outcomes. Together, we defined the product that results from the team working together and what constitutes success.  To help guide the expected outcomes, we discussed “destination points” of the organization (where it is headed) and strategic priorities (areas of immediate focus for the organization).

Part 3: Rules of Engagement. Here, I built upon previous experiences with establishing “norms of behavior” and expanded it.  I wanted the rules of engagement to be an agreement on how the team members will interact and collaborate, support each other, and give feedback.  The part I added this time was a method for positive resolution of interpersonal conflicts; given the high organizational standing and strong personalities of the team members, I assumed that conflicts will arise naturally.  Here are the rules of engagement we agreed to:

A. Norms of Behavior

  • We will listen actively to all ideas
  • Everyone’s opinion counts
  • No interrupting while someone is talking
  • One meeting at a time
  • We will respect differences of opinions and viewpoints
  • We will be supportive rather than judgmental
  • We will give helpful feedback directly and openly
  • When we have a difference of opinion, we will debate the facts and not the personalities
  • All team members will offer their ideas and resources
  • We agree to have fun!
  • We will seek balance of discussion
  • We will bring it to the table
  • If you have talked 5-10 minutes with no breaks, we’re not having a discussion
  • “Expedition behavior”: We will proactively offer help and jump in where help is needed
  • Anyone can call a “timeout” for any reason in a respectful manner
  • We will be respectful of our teammates’ time by being on time to all tagups

B. Resolution of Conflicts

  • We recognize that conflict is expected as part of the normal process of working in teams
  • We each are responsible for speaking our truth, listening to understand, and working towards a resolution
  • We will acknowledge when there is a conflict
  • Conflicts will be promptly discussed between parties in conflict
  • We commit to being honest when seeking answers to the following questions
  • What do I feel about this issue and where did that feeling come from?
  • Are my feelings so strong that I’m not hearing what others say?
  • Am I operating with the best interest for the team as my goal?
  • Why do others think differently about this issue than do I?
  • Is this issue really worth it?
  • What is going to happen to my relationship with the other(s) if this conflict continues?
  • We will agree on a time and place to attempt to resolve the issue using the following:
  • Parties in conflict will meet directly and separately to seek resolution
  • Will seek neutral third party peer to help resolve if unable to find resolution directly
  • Will seek arbitration from team leader if unable to solve through mediation and agree to abide by leader’s decision
  • We will not bring up past issues while working on current issues

After we engaged in the conversation about the team charter, the contributions and subsequent dialogue appeared to flow naturally.  My initial reluctance to engage in such a topic with a bunch of rocket scientists quickly faded, and in the end we created a team charter that all of us own, together.

It was a great start to a fabulous week.


Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto


Team Charter

The Bus is Departing the Station

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
–Henry Ford

It’s a new year, and time to form a new team.  A few months ago, I wrote about my plans for an approach on getting “the right people on the bus“.  Well, as the title of this piece says, the bus is departing the station…how did I do?

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who shared ideas with me on the basis of that earlier piece.  I was able to refine the approach slightly into what I’m going to share shortly. I hope that this approach will be helpful to others needing to form high-performance teams.

The basic three tenets are the same; how I approached them is what changed slightly.  As a reminder, my goal is to get the right people on the bus at the outset.  That consists of three parts:

  1. The Right Skills.  In my case, we will be planning strategically on how we see accomplishing the work within NASA’s mission operations during the next 2-7 years.  Therefore, I seek members who understand the work.  I want diversity in expertise to cover most (say, 80%) of the technical content.
  2. The Right Aptitude.  I’m looking for people who have “skin in the game”; that is, a vested interest in the outcome.  They believe in where the organization is headed, and want to have a hand in making it happen.  They work well with others and are not afraid to share their opinions, even if contrary.  They are key leaders within the organization.
  3. The Right Instincts.  I’m looking for diversity in problem-solving and decision-making so as to expand the possible solutions that the team will consider as we chart a course through uncertain waters.  I want to take advantage of the natural talents that people bring to the table.

Nothing above is fundamentally different than what I outlined previously.  What is different is the approach I took to identify members.  Here is what I did.

First, I outlined the above with the key decision-makers and leaders within the organization, and made a case that taking all three into consideration will increase the likelihood of success of the team.  Once I got their buy-in on that point, we sat down with a larger list and narrowed it down to the final candidates.

For the skills piece, I sought diversity of technical expertise.   In the past, we would have pulled representation from each of the attendant offices and divisions and build a team that way.  In this case, we didn’t; we sought diversity but didn’t require representation from each and every office or division.

For the aptitude piece, we validated the criteria by asking the following question: who can we NOT afford to assign to this task? It’s the “why’s” that result from that question that lead to the best criteria.  Once we validated the criteria, we filtered down to those who provided the best fit to the criteria.

For the instincts piece, we screened on the basis of the Kolbe Wisdom™, created by Kathy Kolbe.  In summary, our natural talents are manifested into four areas:

  • Fact Finder, how we gather and share information;
  • Follow Thru, how we arrange and design;
  • Quick Start, how we deal with unknowns, risk, and uncertainty; and
  • Implementor, how we handle tangibles, mechanics, and space

Each area contains three zones:

  • resist or prevent problems;
  • accommodate solutions; and
  • insistence or initiate problem-solving.

The screening provides an initial guess that I will validate later by having each of the members complete a Kolbe A™ index; from there, I will ask for membership adjustments if I see my guesses were way off, and will identify intervention techniques to mitigate problems that arise.  (I’ll have more to say about these later, once I get the results and get the team underway.)  To learn more, I highly encourage you check out

After the above process, we narrowed down to a set of final candidates. I further validated our selections by paying a visit to each of the candidates and asked a series of questions, geared towards validating where that individual stood on the direction of the organization, the enthusiasm of the individual for the task at hand, the role the people would play later during the implementation phase, and how that person naturally solves problems and makes decisions.

I’m blown away by the results.

The five members of the team are key thought leaders and recognized technical experts who play key leadership roles in the organization today, and who are tabbed to play key roles later during the implementation phase.  I’m looking forward to collecting the Kolbe A™ index results for this team to validate their collective instincts and begin work.

The bus is departing the station on Monday – and I couldn’t be happier with who is on board.


Text © Joe Williams 2011.
Photo courtesy


The Bus is Departing the Station