Innovation the NASA Way: What’s Your Mission?

It doesn’t take a space race to inspire your team to think and act boldly.

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

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.