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