Complex 39

“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.”
–Brian Tracy


For me, personally, it’s an interesting time.  Recently, I mentioned that I’m about to embark on a two-year distance-learning program for an Executive MBA at the Naval Postgraduate School, about which I’ll share more in the coming weeks.  Today, however, I’m about to share a different and interesting tidbit that has been in the works for a few months: I’m joining the Board of Advisors for Complex 39, a virtual incubator in the mobile technology space.

It’s an interesting story (well, at least to me) as to how I got to this point.

A few years ago I attended a workshop hosted by Kathy Kolbe and the Kolbe Corporation, and it was there that I met Matt Williams.  Besides sharing a last name, there were a number of other things we had in common and, at least from my perspective, proved to be a bond for us.  I was especially fascinated by Matt’s track record of creating companies from scratch, all of which are still in existence today and are making money.  You would think that being a serial entrepreneur is about as far removed from being a rocket scientist as there is.  Yet the instincts and natural talents that Matt deploys have a certain similar affinity with those I have, such as a willingness to take some risks and a desire to experiment to see “what happens” as a way to learn and affect change.  To date, I’ve just chosen to manifest them differently than through serial entrepreneurialism – I’m more of an “intrapreneur” in my role at NASA as I’ve moved from hard core “rocket science” to business models.  Somehow, Matt understood quickly what “makes me tick” and suggested a number of ideas and resources for me to use as I work towards unlocking NASA’s tremendous capabilities and resources for reimbursable commercial use.  I consumed everything he suggested, and have applied them in several situations.  Matt and I have remained in touch since that initial meeting a few years ago.  Little did I know what was to come next.

A few months ago, Matt and Keith Allaun contact me about a new venture called Complex 39 that they were starting with a third partner, Larry Slotnick.  Matt and Keith talked to me about joining their Board of Advisors.  I had never done anything like that before, so I asked for more information.  Complex 39 is about incubating ideas, concepts, and approaches in the mobile technology space for companies that might have encountered obstacles with advocacy and funding through more traditional means.  The name “Complex 39” was chosen from the launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center to help symbolize the company’s role in “launching new businesses.”  (Obviously, the name is very catching for me.)  As a member of the Board of Advisors, I would provide consultation, assessments and review of strategy, business, sales, marketing and technical plans, and advice to Complex 39 and to potential client companies.  Matt and Keith expressed a strong desire to have me on board to bring to bear all of the ideas, concepts, and perspectives that I’ve written about elsewhere here on Leading Space.  After reflecting on the offer for a while, and clearing it through the legal community, I chose to accept Matt’s and Keith’s offer.  It’s an unpaid advisory role that I will do outside my normal role at NASA.  I’m honored that Matt and Keith extended the offer to me.  Looking at the roster of the Board of Advisors, I’m excited at the prospects of working with them to help new businesses get off the ground, as well as learn more about myself and the possibilities that come from working with such innovative, creative, risk-taking people.

Like I said, it’s an interesting time.

You can read more about Complex 39 here.


Text © 2012, Joe Williams. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: “Sky and Branches” by Ana V. Ramirez via FotoPlanet, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Complex 39

Thank You, Mr. Lincoln

“…I’m ready right now!”
–Abraham Lincoln


The following story is probably apocryphal, yet certainly feels real given my recent experience at writing a paper versus a blog post:

Someone once asked Abraham Lincoln how long it took him to prepare for a 5-minute speech. “A couple of days.” Shocked, this person asked how long it took him to prepare for a 20-minute speech. “6-8 hours.” Totally befuddled, he asked how long it took him to prepare for a two-hour speech. “I’m ready right now!”

I just finished my first paper for the Executive MBA program that starts in a few days.  The assignment was to write a 500- to 700-word essay on an experience with an effective or ineffective team.  If you’re a long-time reader of Leading Space, you’ll realize that I have lots of material on that topic already.  The challenge was sifting through those previous writings to craft an essay in the required word range.  At the start, I figured “no problem” since a typical blog post is of that size.  However, I found that unlike the typical blog post that I roll off my head in mere moments, I was writing, re-writing, editing, and revising for far longer than I thought it would take – well over a week.  Finally, I finished and submitted the paper today.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln, for the warning.

Anyway, here it is.  (In the copy below, I’ve added links to source material posts.)


In my role at NASA, I lead teams that formulate contract strategies for major goods and services supporting NASA’s human spaceflight programs.  In particular, I focus on NASA’s Mission Control-Houston, astronaut training facilities, mission planning systems, and mission operations “plan/train/fly” services.  Each team I lead functions as a project “tiger” team, coming together to formulate the strategy, then disbands upon approval of the strategy by NASA executives in Houston and Washington, DC.  The team is self-directed, operating autonomously from the standard line management, and has dependencies upon other NASA organizations for support in policy, legal, and logistics matters.  Finally, recent trends in national human spaceflight policy and continuing federal fiscal pressures and uncertainties have created a need to incorporate innovative approaches as part of future contract strategies as a way to be flexible and save money.

My most recent assignment was a year ago to lead a team for six months to devise a complex strategy with two elements: (1) to procure contractor personnel to work side-by-side with NASA Civil Servants on mission operations “plan/train/fly” services for current and future NASA human spaceflight programs, and (2) to bring forth potential “reverse partnerships” with firms in the emerging commercial space sector for “plan/train/fly” services to be provided back to them by the Government-run mission operations organization in Houston.  The latter would be a means to help commercial space firms succeed and to keep the Government-led mission operations workforce intact until human spaceflight policy and funding for beyond low earth orbit exploration is settled.

Before starting, I met with the director of NASA’s mission operations organization in Houston (“The Boss”) to get his expectations and success criteria for the strategy.  Wanting to start the team on the right foot, I discussed a plan with him for obtaining team members with the “right skills”, the “right aptitude”, and the “right problem-solving talents”.  From there I built a team of seven members, representing the major technical areas of the mission operations organization.  All members were known as “team players”, were leaders in the organization, and had a vested interest in the outcome of the strategy.  Finally, the team had a good diversity of problem-solving talents.  The members were assigned to the team full time, and we were located together in a separate facility called “The Bunker.” I led the daily meetings and oversaw roles and responsibilities through volunteerism augmented by my assignments based on alignment of tasks to talents.  We worked together face-to-face daily for six months, and presented our proposed strategy in person to NASA executives in Houston and over a teleconference to NASA executives in Washington, DC.

Once the team was assembled, we established groundrules for ourselves through development of a team charter covering topics such as organizational goals and strategic priorities, norms of behavior, decision-making processes, and how we would handle conflict. Once running, we solved problems through collaboration and by applying our respective skills and natural talents for brainstorming, obtaining supporting data, finding salient points, and producing high-quality supporting materials.  Finally, we communicated openly and frequently with each other and stakeholders through meetings and face-to-face side discussions.  I could see the trust and camaraderie build on a daily basis, even with the occasional lively disagreement on strategy details.

As our product, we devised a strategy for obtaining a talented contractor management team that would retain a high percentage of contractor incumbents, and that would propose specific partnerships with firms in the emerging commercial space sector while navigating some sticky legal hurdles.  In the end, the NASA executives liked the overall strategy concept except in one area, which we accommodated then received final approval.

Was this team successful?  My answer is yes: we met our challenges on time and produced a sound strategy that was approved by the NASA executives.  I also view the bonding of members to each other as a positive experience with carryover to normal duties once the team disbanded, based on team member comments I received after the fact.  Finally, I felt the team was able to utilize its diversity of individual talents effectively.



Text © 2012, Joe Williams. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: “Lincoln” by Joe Williams.


Thank You, Mr. Lincoln