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Innovation the NASA Way: What’s Your Mission?


One question often asked by readers of Innovation the NASA Way is the obvious:  “How can I bring the lessons learned from these chapters into my workplace? I don’t work in a matrix-managed organization and I don’t have limitless budgets at my disposal.” It is a legitimate question, and one that deserves explanation beyond the book.

NASA, always innovative, has experienced two periods of extreme excellence with the quality and speed of solutions implemented to meet the enormous challenges it faced. The first period was the space race, roughly 1957 to 1972, the desperate effort to catch up with the Soviet Union’s impressive accomplishments in space. The United States would later exceed these accomplishments by landing humans on the moon and exploring it. This period was unique in that the resources were vast—5 percent of the federal budget and a combined workforce of almost 400,000 people were marshaled to meet the challenge.

A second period of impressive achievement was a descendant of the first, a quieter race to beat the Russians in robotic, unmanned exploration of the solar system, which lasted roughly from 1962 to 1988. It began with the first robotic exploration of Venus and Mars, encompassed all the outer planets, and finally back to Mars to stay. Both the United States and USSR made great strides despite streamlined budgets—the expenditures were just a small fraction of what was being spent for the race to land men on the moon. In the end, both nations excelled at the exploration of the solar system, each playing to its strengths.

In both eras, the behaviors and ideas that drove successful and effective innovation at NASA were generally similar. Boldness, daring and passion were the rallying cry, and these notions supported an environment in which greatness flourished. We see this today in the continued operation of the International Space Station, and more starkly in the astounding success of the Mars rovers Opportunity (still operating after a decade on Mars) and Curiosity (just now finishing its two-year primary mission and poised for many more years of exploration).

The question is how can these broad notions create workable solutions that can be applied to business or government operations that function in an entirely different environment?

The lessons in Innovation the NASA Way are not dissimilar to much of what has been written by leaders like Steve Jobs about Apple and other great companies known for innovation in the 21st century. Of the major ideas espoused in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, we were aligned on many. That’s not a coincidence, nor is it brilliance on my part. It is simply that these are the things that work, universal principles that can be applied almost anywhere to foster sometimes radical and often vast change.

Innovation the NASA Way                         

  • Daring                                                                      
  • Boldness                                                          
  • Passion                                                             
  • Mission                                                           
  • Clearly defined goals                                    

 Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs

  • Sell dreams, not products      
  • Aspire to change the world
  • Do what you love
  • Create insanely great experiences
  • Say no to the unnecessary

I would add to the above collection of concepts:

  • Avoid negativity. Keep the naysayers out of the initial process; there’s plenty of time to weigh in with contrary opinions later.
  • Provide a supportive environment with a robust tool set. Little will be achieved if the time and resources are not provided to foster innovative thinking and process development.
  • Give a sense of ownership to the innovators. Keep them in the loop as the innovation is put into process.

There were people at NASA analogous to leaders like Steve Jobs, including James Webb (NASA administrator, 1961-1968), Wernher von Braun (head of the Marshall Spaceflight Center, 1957-1975) and Robert Gilruth (director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, 1958-1972) George Mueller (associate administrator of the Office of Manned Spaceflight, 1963-1970), Chris Craft (director of the Johnson Spaceflight Center, 1958-1982) and George Low (deputy administrator, 1958-1976).

There were many others, but these were the prime movers and shakers in the manned spaceflight program during that first tumultuous decade leading up to the moon landings and the next 10 years, which saw the development of the space shuttle. Collectively they shepherded NASA through two of its richest decades and some of its greatest challenges. Others would man the front lines of innovation at other field centers. William Pickering, Bruce Murray and Lew Allen, all of JPL/Caltech, come to mind.

What common traits did these leaders possess, and what did they transmit to the rank-and-file of NASA and its many contractors?

  • They had a strong sense of mission and service to their country and its goals in space flight.
  • They inspired passion in their people and set clear goals for achievement.
  • They created robust environments fertile to innovation, telling their charges to think boldly and act with daring resolve.

Perhaps above all, these leaders instilled their own sense of mission in the rank-and-file of NASA and its suppliers and partners. One example is an Apollo-era technician who was working on the Saturn V rocket shortly before a moon flight. One of the astronauts rode up the launch tower to visit “his” rocket, and came upon the technician working on one of the complex internal components. After being chastised by the technician (nobody else was supposed to be near the rocket at that time), the astronaut indentified himself as one of the men who would be flying the beast in a day or two. The technician grew quiet and then calmly shook the astronaut’s hand and said, looking him squarely in the eye, “I just want you to know that this mission will not fail because of me.” That technician exhibited the dedication, passion and drive that infused the organization. He was a person with a mission to exceed expectations and support innovative greatness. NASA was and still is full of them.

NASA has changed, as has the world that created it. The open federal checkbook has all but closed, the mission has changed and the workforce has diversified. But to this day, those driving principles foster innovation and the processes necessary to fulfill its promise. These ideas are transplantable to most any organization, regardless of size, product or service, because they create an environment and organizational structure that can create great thinking and greater achievements.

What’s your mission?

Rod Pyle of Pasadena, California, is former vice president of communications for the World Space Foundation and author of Innovation the NASA Way

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