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