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