Thinking Different?

Continuing to believe the same thing, even in the face of new evidence to the contrary, is the definition of insanity – except in politics where it’s called leadership.
–Scott Adams.

Recently, word leaked out that the Agency is preparing to announce a configuration of the next-generation NASA launch vehicle that is heavily derived from the retiring Space Shuttle, rumored for announcement near July 8 – the scheduled launch date for the final Space Shuttle mission.  If true, then we will see a proposal in keeping to the letter-of-the-law outlined in Sec. 302 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.  Yet it is not without some trepidation that I view these developments.  Why?

The concepts behind a shuttle-derived solution are outlined later in Sec. 302 of the Act:

“[T]he Administrator shall, to the extent practicable, extend or modify existing vehicle development and associated contracts necessary to meet the [Space Launch System] requirements…”

“The Administrator shall ensure critical skills and capabilities are retained, modified, and developed, as appropriate, in areas related to solid and liquid engines, large diameter fuel tanks, rocket propulsion, and other ground test capabilities for an effective transition to the follow-on Space Launch System.”

What do I see as the foundation of the Act?

It preserves the status quo.  Using existing contracting vehicles and infrastructure preserves the status quo.  A number of the contracts awarded for Constellation work could be modified or restructured into what the Agency will propose in a few weeks.  That keeps several large aerospace firms engaged in current work.

It is the path of least resistance.  Little to no organizational changes in the Agency are needed, and traditional roles are preserved.  Launches will continue to be supported by the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, vehicle development by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, engine testing by the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and astronaut training and mission operations here in Houston at the Johnson Space Center.  Therefore, the leadership doesn’t need to tackle hard issues about evolving roles of Centers, re-vectoring workforce skills, or divesting dated approaches and infrastructure.

Keeping in mind that the Act was authored in the Senate and approved by the House, it should be no surprise that the degree of change is small; after all, Congress is a friction-maximizing device, slow to change and, where it does change, tends to deal with transactional change.  The concern I have is that a business-as-usual approach to implement the Act ignores the reality of the situation we face fiscally and politically.

The Budget. NASA’s budget in current dollars has remained flat since 2000, averaging around $17.9 billion in today’s dollars.  The percentage of NASA’s budget dedicated to human spaceflight has fluctuated over the years, and and is slated to consume a little less than half of that budget. Although other parts of the NASA budget can (and have been) diverted to support a human spaceflight development program, other areas are facing challenges, too, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Politics. From a political standpoint, the Agency leadership and Congress appear to be at loggerheads. Between the questioning of commitment to the law and the threat of a supoena, it seems there is quite a bit of disfunction between the Agency and Congress.  This is somewhat reminiscent of a little over 20 years ago, when another Administration proposed a follow-up to the shuttle called the Space Exploration Initiative, intended to land humans on Mars eventually.  In this case, the disfunction was between the Agency and the White House instead of Congress, and eventually the Space Exploration Initiative was abandoned for the the “faster, better, cheaper” approach of the mid-1990’s.

In looking at the realities of the situation, what is to prevent history from repeating itself? We could be right here again in 2013 or 2017 with the next change in Administrations.

What is needed is the kind of leadership not afraid of embracing change, tacking the sacred cows, and seeking value with the greatest return on the American taxpayer dollar.  What is needed is recognition by the leadership that business-as-usual will not work and that NASA’s human spaceflight is in a renewal cycle.  What is needed is for the leadership to work together for the common goals and objectives outlined in the introductions of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and the NASA Strategic Plan 2011.

What is needed is to think different.

Text © 2011 Joe Williams

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Stockphoto4u

Thinking Different?

Debating Change in Human Spaceflight

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
–Mahatma Gandhi


Monday night’s debates between Republican hopefuls for President actually saw human spaceflight policy make a brief appearance. Newt Gingrich said the most on the topic, pushing for greater privatization consistent with his earlier remarks on the topic. Tim Pawlenty said less, calling for refocusing in light of the federal budget challenges, and little else. Mitt Romney made a puzzling tangential reference with partisan overtones, and the rest said nothing. (At least two of the hopefuls ventured a position.)

Let’s look at what the two stated positions have in common – greater privatization and refocusing – in terms of leading successful change. The type of change that is common with the two positions is transitional change.

In the case of greater privatization, the role of Government in human spaceflight transitions from one role to another. (Gingrich didn’t address this aspect.) Let’s assume for a minute an end state exists for the Government role in human spaceflight. For the change to be successful, modifications are needed to all the following: NASA’s organizational structure, the existing systems of policies and procedures in place for human spaceflight, and the individual skills and abilities needed to make the end state a reality. Furthermore, this type of change presses the need for a reformulation of NASA’s mission, strategy, and organizational culture.

A call for refocusing is another way of stating the need to getting back to basics: to acquire and retain those features with the greatest value, and to let go of those features that are of little to no value. In business models, this is a renewal cycle. In the case of NASA, that would mean dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer add value, for convincing the workforce that change is needed, for restructuring the top team, for identifying and valuing the pockets of strength within the Agency, and for defining what constitutes success at all levels, from the individual level on up.

It’s quite easy to call for modifications and refinements of the sort I call out above; it’s a whole different matter to demonstrate the leadership and commitment to get meaningful results. The first difficulty is overcoming the culture of change driven by the bureaucracy inside the Beltway, which is predisposed towards transactional change and maintaining the status quo. Transactional change, as I’ve described before, is characterized by a lower degree of engagement by the leadership, one that is predominated by little to no alterations to organizational structures, policies and procedures, or skills and abilities needed. As in a monetary transaction, it’s swapping one thing for another. It’s easier to do and can be successful when all we are seeking is minor course corrections for sustaining a successful situation.

Yet as I point out, both greater privatization and refocusing call for fundamental adjustments that cannot be achieved through a series of transactional changes of the type that constitute “business-as-usual” inside the Beltway. It requires a different kind of leadership, one willing to tackle the sacred cows as well as define the larger purpose to get the grassroots support necessary to buy into the change and to make the change a reality.

What do you think?

Text © 2011 Joe Williams
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/Kronick

Debating Change in Human Spaceflight

Sacred Cows

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
–Abbie Hoffman

For any individual, team, or organization facing change, one of the most difficult things to deal with are sacred cows.  You know what I mean – they are the ones you see grazing on your valuable grass and in your eyes contribute nothing but noisy moos, greenhouse gasses and poop.  Yet for whatever reason they are there and are often defended by the establishment.  Why?

I have a few perspectives, looking at the sacred cows grazing around me:

Vested interest in the status quo.  Yeah, there may have been a good reason for that sacred cow before it became a sacred cow, yet times have changed.  Oftentimes the problem is that the leadership may be so invested or emotionally attached to the sacred cow that they cannot look at it objectively for what it is.

Over-systematizing.  As organizations evolve, they develop systems and procedures, then with time add more systems and procedures without divesting those older procedures and systems.  By virtue of inertia, those older procedures and systems become sacred cows.

Over-standardizing.  Another sign of the cow is when an organization embraces standards and the creation of more standards, few of which are tied to meaningful, measurable performance.  For some teams, the act of defining standards is the raison d’etre of that team, and for whatever reason that function is embraced by management.  I see this phenomenon all the time.

Now that I’ve given you perspectives on types of sacred cows I encounter, here is a game plan for getting them off the grass.

Use the value equation.  As I’ve written before, the value equation defines the relationship between benefit and cost: value = benefit – cost.  By definition, sacred cows provide negative value: the cost outweighs the benefit.  One sure-fire way to shoo those sacred cows out of your pasture is to shine light on them in terms of the value equation.  Again, this can be challenging because of the subjective, emotional attachment that is placed on these sacred cows, and often the establishment will cite perceived benefits that attempt to get at a positive value relationship.  Stick to your guns and ask for objective, relevant, and extant evidence of benefit that offsets the cost of the care and feeding of the sacred cow.

Define a sense of urgency.  John Kotter’s eight steps for leading change has, as step number one, defining a sense of urgency.  With regards to getting rid of sacred cows, there must be a sense of urgency built around taking action, to getting those sacred cows out of your pasture.  This is one of the most important steps that enlightened leadership can take – define the sense of urgency to take action, then move ahead deliberately and quickly to the other seven steps.  If there is no sense of urgency around doing something about the sacred cows, nothing will happen.

Do you have sacred cows around you? What has worked for you to shoo them out of your pasture?

Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Sacred Cows