Coming Face-to-Face with Uncertainty

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” –Douglas Adams.


If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is how hard it is to lead change in the public sector in a time of uncertainty.

Part of the purpose of LeadingSpace is to serve as a platform from which I can share the things that work well for me, as well as the things that don’t, with building and leading high performance teams at NASA that engage in strategic thinking.  I’m jazzed by learning something new that I can bring to bear, and over the time that I’ve been engaged in this topic I’ve learned and applied a lot of great ideas and concepts.  What I’m finding is the reality that it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Such is the case when planning a future path for my corner of the human space flight arena.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or absolutely don’t care about what happens in Washington, DC, you are aware that recently Congress averted a shutdown of the federal government by passing an eleventh-hour agreement to fund the government for the rest of the current fiscal year, ending on September 30.  For human spaceflight, this meant providing some measure of funding commensurate with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which defines Congressional law for how the President’s space policy changes proposed in 2010 are to be enacted.  Simply put, this action is to terminate the Constellation Program that was intended as NASA’s next major human spaceflight effort to push beyond low Earth orbit, and instead redirects that activity into a new yet-to-be-fully-defined channel along with helping to nurture an emerging commercial space sector for providing cheaper access to low Earth orbit for cargo and people – NASA astronauts included.

The difficulty is that there are some fundamental disagreements between the White House and Congress concerning the relative priority and purpose of the new Government-provided programs (called the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV, and the Space Launch System, or SLS) versus providing nurturing to the emerging commercial space sector.  My rather oversimplified take is that the White House places greater emphasis on the commercial side, whereas Congress is placing greater emphasis on the Government program side.  I see NASA as caught in the middle.  This disparity in priority was not resolved with the passage of the continuing resolution for this year, and thus I bet it will be the hot button topic in the space arena when appropriations hearings for the next fiscal year get underway soon.   (That is, if Congress will focus on that instead of the retirement homes for the Shuttle orbiters.)  Therefore, one degree of uncertainty is how the relative priority between Government-provided systems and commercial systems will play out between the White House and Congress.

Another degree of uncertainty concerns schedules.  What is the closest thing to a definite is the end of the Shuttle program and near-term US-provided access to space for humans, once the remaining two shuttle missions have flown.  STS-134 is scheduled for launch next week, and STS-135 is scheduled for this summer.  The Authorization Act calls for NASA to provide its human transportation capability no later than 2016; there is some measure of doubt that that will be possible, given the technical challenges and fiscal realities that likely await us, and frankly given our demonstrated track record.  The commercial side is touting capabilities as soon as 2013.  However, from what I know the commercial providers under agreement to demonstrate cargo delivery to the International Space Station (a logical precursor to delivering humans) are behind schedule.  Not that being behind is necessarily bad (since commercial advocates will enthusiastically point out that schedule slips are endemic at NASA); however, one could be justified in saying that the 2013 date is uncertain given demonstrated performance so far on the cargo side.  Therefore, another degree of uncertainty is the timing of the next human spaceflight system, whether Government-provided or commercial, and when it will ready to transport humans into space.

This brings me to my knothole of human spaceflight: planning for how mission operations in Houston (home of Mission Control, astronaut training, and mission planning for NASA’s human spaceflight programs) will acquire the goods and services it needs to fulfill its role.  A year ago, not long after the White House signaled its intended changes in human spaceflight policy, I saw as an opportunity to build a strategy based upon a combination direction: basically, to continue to support NASA’s current and future human spaceflight programs while providing help to the emerging commercial space sector.  Defining a direction is a key component to building a strategy.  It goes hand-in-hand with having a clear vision and guiding principles for the organization, having a clear way of articulating the value propositions of the organization, and understanding the strategic priorities of the organization.  However, as I already covered there is still some amount of uncertainty around both the future Government systems as well as the commercial systems themselves – whether they will exist as proposed at all, or if one or the other might get starved into non-existence or outright canceled in the near future.  There is also the relative priority problem I mentioned earlier, which further exacerbates the situation.

I’m left in a quandary regarding how to push forward in the face of uncertainty.  I wonder if those in the private sector who are engaged in strategic thinking face similar or the same kinds of obstacles like I described, or if this is a unique feature of the public sector.  I can envision leaders in the private sector saying, “Uncertainty, bah.  Here is the path we choose, and we will forge ahead.”  Yet I feel I’m somewhat less able to do that, due to being beholden in part to outcomes from a political consideration that is still in flux.

Maybe the answer is obvious, and it will either come to me in time; or perhaps one of my thousands of patrons to LeadingSpace can see the way to go.  (OK, I’m deluding myself with the number – but not the intent.)

What would you do?


Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Coming Face-to-Face with Uncertainty