Yes, this is rocket science: leadership lessons from NASA

Picture of Matthew Stibbe
Posted by Matthew Stibbe

I was in Florida to complete my private pilot’s licence but also to get some NASA leadership lessons and management insights.

My first visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center began, appropriately enough in the air.

A voice crackled over the radio: “Orlando Approach, 120 Foxtrot Tango, you are cleared for the space coast tour, contact NASA Tower on 126.2.”

At 1,500 feet at the controls of a Piper Warrior, I flew North past the launch pads, the vast vehicle assembly building and then down the almost endless Shuttle landing runway .

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sunlight sparkled on the water on both sides of the cape. It was an impressive, even awesome, sight.

(This article first appeared in the early 2000s in Real Business magazine. I have lightly edited it after moving it to this blog from my personal website. For more NASA management insights see: Mission control: 100 rules for NASA project managers)

NASA management

NASA. If it were a business, the brand name alone would be worth billions. It is one of the most evocative symbols of modern history. The astronauts are the heroes in films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff – rightly so. Behind them, and barely noticed by the mythmakers, are the scientists, engineers and managers that make it all happen. What is it like to be a ‘rocket scientist?’ What is it like to manage them? How do you lead people that do the almost-impossible on a daily basis?

I got my first inkling once I started speaking to a real manager to discuss what I wanted to do. His conversation style was specific, inquisitive and analytical. He was just as I had expected and, to be honest, just as I had hoped: a real rocket scientist. What surprised me was that he had such a good insight into management. He thought I was trying to write a NASA-style ‘how-to’ manual of management. He warned me that such a thing did not, could not exist. Instead, he offered an insight into the unique challenges that a group of NASA managers face. It highlighted the similarities and differences between our world and theirs.

Marketing Strategy foundations course CTA

Prepare for countdown

Driving over the causeway onto the cape for my first meeting, I telephoned my rocket scientist again to confirm the appointment. He asked about my “timeline” for the day. “Timeline” is part of the language of the NASA myth. Think of the famous countdown before a rocket launches … 3, 2, 1 , we have lift off. Everything runs on a timeline. My first meeting was with Bill Dowdel who is Lead Mission Manager for Space Station Processing. His team is responsible for assembling and testing the pieces of the International Space Station assembled, ready for launch.

We tend to plan to the very minute

He explained the importance of the timeline to me. “We tend to plan to the very minute,” he said. “A lot of people I have dealt with in the commercial world are not as integrated, as schedule-conscious as we are. We cannot respond like that here, we cannot tolerate that here; because we have made a commitment to launch on a particular day. It takes a major technical problem to change that.”

Failure is not an option

For example, Dowdel described one recent incident for me concerning the stabilising gyroscopes on one of the basic units of the Space Station, the Z1 Truss. “There was an issue that came up late in our flow because of testing we were doing on spares. [Someone raised a concern about the sensor] and how the environment it would see on orbit might cause it to act improperly, so we had to go in and change the thermostat on some internal heaters on those gyros to create the right environment so that it could survive on orbit … We were about two weeks away from having to go to the launch pad.”

Like all the managers I met, Dowdel was an engineer first and a manager second. I think this explains the specificity of their language but also the care and precision with which they use it. The former is easy to capture in writing, the later is much more elusive. They share a vocabulary about management that that builds on their scientific background. It gave them an effective way of talking about management issues that I haven’t come across before.

There was an issue that came up … when we had a flight vehicle built and … ready to go to the pad

Teamwork under pressure

His approach to finding a solution to the gyroscope problem is an example of teamwork under pressure. It is also typical of the NASA approach of ‘standing a board up,’ which means putting together a cross-functional team to address a problem. “Myself and Mark Sorenson [from contractor Boeing] were the two primary guys responsible for assembly and test of the hardware. So we got our teams together, probably a grand total of about thirty people. Boeing sent three or four people up to Allied Signal [who make the gyros] to make sure they understood the problem and what we needed to do to fix it.”

Having analysed the problem and come up with a solution, they set about implementing it. “We did the procedure build up [writing a step by step procedure to do the work]. We also looked at our schedules to see how we could fit that work in with the overall close-out that we were doing on the vehicle.” This sounds like an everyday sort of business problem, like a product launch. However, the context is very different: the component itself costs hundreds of millions of dollars and it costs in excess of five hundred million dollars to launch a shuttle. You wouldn’t want it coming out of your salary if you got it wrong.

Safety first: quality control

I asked Dowdel how NASA inculcates this attitude to safety. He was pragmatic about it. “You can write down whatever you want in a book and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. A new guy will come in from university and they will either see that you do or do not do that. What matters is how you do business.” In other words, do what I do, not what I say.

I explored this topic when I met David King, who as Director of Shuttle Processing is one of the most senior managers at KSC. We talked about the quality assurance process. There are over one million separate steps to process a Shuttle from landing to launch. This is where process and management overtake heroic individualism. NASA engineers document every step and quality controllers double-check them.

He explained, “not only do you have to convince everyone in your project that you’re good to go, but you have to convince everyone in all the other projects – a peer review kind of thing.” The ultimate failsafe is each individual’s responsibility to speak up. “If anyone’s uncomfortable to the point where they are no-go, then we are no-go as a team. This is not a dictatorship. Everybody has to be go. Anybody can stop a shuttle launch.”

Anybody can stop a launch

I asked the obvious question – does it work? Do people really shout when there’s a problem? King gave me a current example. While I was in Florida, NASA delayed the latest Shuttle launch for several weeks in order to check out the explosive bolts that jettison the external solid rocket boosters from the shuttle during the climb into space. One had failed in the previous launch but, luckily, a back up bolt had worked perfectly.

King explained “when we find something of that magnitude, we will stand a board up … we have had folks down here for four weeks from all around the country to try to determine how big an issue this was, and what we should do about it.”

These multi-disciplinary teams dig into problems. In this case they decided to postpone the launch, although “we would have probably been fine to go fly and a lot of folks felt comfortable flying this thing. But when you have some folks who are very bright and who have some nervousness, we all snap to, get behind them and say ‘okay, we’ll go fix this thing.’”

NASA leadership is personal

There is a safety hierarchy at NASA that begins with the general public and ends with workers at Kennedy Space Centre and the astronauts. NASA goes out of its way to personalise the dangers of complacency. Before a launch, astronauts’ families come in and write good luck messages on large white boards around the facility.

But, what happens when something does go wrong? “We try not to have any escapes,” said King but when something does go wrong they try to get to the root of the problem and not just put a band-aid on it. They focus on facts and evidence – “in God we trust, all others bring data.” I particularly liked his ‘three why’s’ approach to problem solving which involves asking ‘Why did this happen? Why did this happen? Why did this happen?’ To use a favourite NASA phrase, they absolutely pound problems into the ground.

Making NASA leaders

Oscar Toledo, Chief Engineer at KSC, says that ‘developing the workforce’ is the biggest challenge NASA management faces. Not, as you would expect, launching Space Shuttles or building the ISS.

I asked him how NASA does it and, typically, he described an approach with a scientific mindset. In Toledo’s words, “it’s a microcosm of how NASA manages. You set up an infrastructure to measure what your baseline is today, talk about what the end state is and then you continue to measure these activities.”

However, there’s no point setting up rules that stifle innovation. Checklists and procedures are fine for operations people but the researchers and scientists need more freedom. He says, “you cannot schedule that you are going to be brilliant at 11 o’clock on Wednesdays. One of the keys that I found in the past … you just have to know your people – you have to know their capabilities, their strengths, their weaknesses.”

The biggest challenge we face at NASA is developing the workforce

Getting things done

My last port of call was Barry Bradon, whose verbose title of “Element Manager for Shuttle and Station Management Office” belies an important project management role. He expanded the point about developing the workforce. “The biggest management challenge is people. Not the people themselves – but because we at KSC are trying to do a lot. We’re launching Shuttle, we’re trying to get the Space Station up into space, we have an expendable launch vehicle program and we are under a federal mandate to keep our headcount fairly low. So we are trying to do so much with a limited headcount.”

As a result, “there’s always a pull for good people – I need him for this, I need her for that.” For example, “we went through a reorganisation across the centre last year and we realised that there were engineers in various projects performing a project management function. My best scenario was that they would come to work for me full time as project managers … but they were required over in the engineering area to help keep the Shuttle flying.”

NASA management structures

NASA attempts to cut the baby in half by using matrix management and organising people into teams. In this example, the engineers continued to report into their engineering line organisations but part-timed in project management. This requires good management, not only from the managers but also from the entire workforce in terms of managing their time and organising their schedules.

It was Bradon’s job to develop these skills in his people. Recognising that management is a learned skill, NASA gives extensive training for engineers who become managers. For example, there is an in-house program for people who are transitioning from hard-core technical roles into management and another course to hone existing management skills.

Bradon explained that there were also clear career paths for engineers who did not aspire to management. Completing an advanced degree or becoming recognised as an expert in a particular field are also options for career development with pay scales aligned with people who go into management. This is something that technical businesses constantly struggle with. It isn’t surprising that an organisation of technicians would come up with an elegant solution.

Managing rocket scientists

So what are the rocket scientists like? Judging from my encounters with a few of them the answer is ‘regular people’. This contradicted my own experience as a manager of software engineers. They tended to want to find algorithms for business relationships – ‘if I do x and y, then z will happen’. Not so at NASA, Oscar Toledo told me, “some of the most talented scientists and engineers I have ever worked with were the most eccentric folks you will ever find and those were the people I normally called whenever I had a really tough problem. But on the average, they tend not to put much emphasis on that.”

In God we trust, all others bring data

That’s not to say that there isn’t a difference in mentality between a manager and an engineer. David King explained: “engineers are a certain breed. They think a certain way – very logically. Then managers come in and have to use judgement based on engineers’ input. Now, all the managers have an engineering background so we’re not making technical decisions from a business perspective but from a technical perspective.”

The key input a manager makes is that of judgement: “if we wanted to take zero risk, we’d never fly. We have to do a good job of evaluating what the risk is and when we’re good enough.”

If we wanted to take zero risk, we’d never fly

What is important is to give them a say in the choice of work that they do. Barry Bradon explained: “In my specific directorate, we’ve instituted a work control board that is authorising work that comes up. If someone has an idea for something they want to do then they can come to the board and make a request for time and resources. In other words it is a resource allocation clearing house.”

People tend to gravitate towards projects that interest them. “You don’t want to pull someone onto a project they don’t want to do because they won’t succeed and the project is at risk if you do – you have to try to find people who have the interest. A lot of people find a project themselves that they are interested and they come forward and propose the project. As much as possible, we try to support those projects when it makes strategic sense for the directorate.” Surprisingly, the vast majority of projects that come up come from the grass roots in this way. It struck me as an organised spontaneity.

Motivating rocket scientists

I discussed the question of motivation with Oscar Toledo. He told me a story that left me speechless with amazement. “Back in my software days [in his previous post at NASA], my staff turnover rate was less than 1% over a period of five years and these people were constantly working twelve hours a day.” In the entire time he ran the group only two software engineers – out of about 50 – left. He was emphatic that people stayed at NASA because they really wanted to.

What motivates such hard work and loyalty? Not money. “We can’t compete, money-wise, with the private sector,” said Dowdell. Another manager told me that many of his people were being offered twice their salary to go work in the private sector. “If you get up in the morning and you say ‘I don’t want to go to work today’ then it doesn’t matter how much money you’re making.”

It’s not about money

Turning to point out of the window at the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building on the horizon, Dowdell observed that KSC is one of the few places on Earth where people leave to go into space. It naturally attracts people who want to work in such an environment. Toledo added that people want to be part of the space program because of its importance to the future of humanity. “Some day humans are going to permanently leave the planet and people want to be part of that.” Being a bit of a skeptic I asked if that was really sufficient motivation for someone who was seriously demotivated. He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t know of anybody who’s like that, I really don’t.” Or as David King put it “you don’t see cynicism on launch day.”

‘You don’t see cynicism on launch day’

A further spur to motivation comes from the sense of teamwork. People see how they fit into the overall scheme of things – where their cog was in the big machine, if you like – and they could see how others depended on their contribution. “If you have a team that’s executing, I don’t care if it’s two people or a hundred people, that team lives and dies by the performance of each member of that group,” said Toledo.

But there is also a tradition – a myth, if you like – that goes back into NASA’s history and which today’s staff consciously try to live up to. For example, Dowdell said, “the guy who hired me, Norm Carlson the launch vehicle test conductor for Apollo. He was in the control centre for just about every manned mission this country ever flew until about three or four years ago when he retired … he has his picture in the Air and Space Museum in Washington. You can’t betray that legacy – it’s special.” I asked him if this was something he tried to cultivate – “Oh, yes. I try like hell. I constantly remind people what we’re about and why we’re here.”

This, for me, was the real difference between NASA and the rest of us. They have a legacy of achievement and the loftiest of ambitions. But they don’t rest on their laurels, as an agency or as managers, and this is where the similarities begin, or could begin. They continue to set hugely challenging goals for themselves. NASA managers bring the scientific rigour they use on their projects to bear on management problems. The organisation deliberately cultivates the myth and reinforce it with their daily choices and actions. There isn’t a rulebook of NASA management, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

How to choose an agency for your new website