As a member of the Barrier Analysis team at JSC that filmed the video Wayne Hale so generously hosted on YouTube and discussed in his blog, I am proud of our admittedly amateur production. In the space of one evening (and with the inspired direction of astronaut Andy Thomas), we illustrated the mindsets, assumptions, and processes that all too often put up roadblocks to innovation and inclusion in our industry.
When we showed the video earlier this month at the JSC Joint Leadership Team retreat, I knew immediately that we struck a nerve and hit our target. However, pointing out the problems is often the easiest part. What I am even more proud of is the tremendous effort our team made in proposing ways to move forward and our willingness to question the status quo. I think that’s what the take-home message from the retreat really was, and what I’d like to talk about here.
The Inclusion & Innovation Council at Johnson Space Center was created by Center Director Mike Coats to take the promotion of diversity to the next level and truly make JSC an innovative and choice place to work. In August, seven engagement teams were chartered to examine how we can get started on that. Six of the teams were given specific areas of expertise to focus on: Communications, IT, Work-Life Fit, Mentoring, Recruitment & Employee Experience, and Awards & Recognition.
My team – Barrier Analysis – was asked to take a more holistic approach and examine the prevailing barriers to inclusion and innovation that exist here at the center. From that analysis, we were to come up with some recommendations for targeting those root issues. The field was wide open, so we agreed to some team-building exercises at the beginning to gauge interests and concerns within our own group.
The Barrier Analysis team consisted of people from engineering, science, program management, resource management, human resources, mission operations, and even the Astronaut Office. We had young professionals with less than five years experience, career veterans with more than 30 years of service, and everything in between. I do believe we represented a unique cross-section of the civil servant and contractor communities at JSC and brought a diversity of experiences, thought, and opinion.
That’s probably why it took the better part of three months (hurricane not withstanding) for us to really drill down on what underlying issues are driving the surface problems we all see. Once we were satisfied that we had identified some of the fundamental issues, the next step was figuring out what to do about them.
We recognized pretty quickly that the best we could do was offer paths to move beyond the barriers. It would be those that will have to live with those ideas – especially at the working level – that would be best suited to figuring out implementation. Massive change imposed arbitrarily is the surest way to get people to dig in their heels and fight.
In order to develop a solution to a barrier, an organization has to have a vision of what the ideal state should be. You need to know what you’re working towards to be most effective. Building on the core values proposed by the JSC 20-Year Vision team, we agreed that work relationships at the center should be based on trust, optimism, and openness. We also recognized that the JSC community should value creativity and a willingness to take calculated risks that help achieve the mission.
So, what gets in the way of those ideal states? People are all too often distrustful of each other’s motives. Control is often more important than results. We reject that which we do not understand and make little effort to change that. We look more to short-term gain than long-term benefit. We let our egos drive our decisions, rather than the data. We also tend to isolate ourselves – both in our organizations and from outside ideas.
Why does that happen? Here’s where the meat of the problem is. We build that isolationism into our organizations, often called “silos,” and inhibit the free flow of information. Autocratic (yes, that’s a technical term for it) and hierarchical management often does the same. This is particularly detrimental to innovation because history shows us that the best ideas often come from groups of people close to the problem.
We use process (requirements, for example) to constrain solutions and impose control to the point that it gets in the way of actually doing the work. Former Administrator Mike Griffin himself said that attacking process would have been his biggest priority in a second term. We also let institutional inertia – tradition, normalization of error, and “not invented here” syndrome – prevent us from changing things rather than rock the boat.
Connecting the dots isn’t necessarily a one-to-one process, though. We decided to focus on coming up with pathways from the barriers to the ideal states that would be highly actionable and have high impact by covering multiple issues. The four guiding concepts are: Servant Leadership, Freedom to Pursue New Ideas, Integrative Thinking, and Relevance.
Servant Leadership can be summed up by the principle that “managers work for their people, not the other way around.” A servant leader promotes mission success by developing people, removing obstacles from their paths, and creating an environment where employees feel safe to push boundaries in the course of doing their jobs. A manager should still be focused on achieving results in line with the organization’s goals and values, but this philosophy recognizes that this is best accomplished by being a resource rather than a taskmaster.
The Barrier Analysis team recommended that JSC and contractor management promote servant leadership by identifying, selecting, and promoting leaders with team-forming and “people” skills. The best person to manage a team may not necessarily be the person with the most technical experience. Senior management can also learn from industry trailblazers that changed the dynamic between employees & management and develop classes to teach existing management how to incorporate servant leadership in their offices.
Promoting the Freedom to Pursue New Ideas is based in the recognition that fresh ideas and different perspectives are vital to the evolution of an organization. Wild ideas may not be implementable at the beginning, but they often spark new ways of thinking about a problem that lead to a truly innovative solution. We also have to get comfortable again with the idea of learning from our mistakes. Calculated risks are essential to push the state-of-the-art and keep NASA on the “bleeding edge” of exploration.
JSC itself can set aside working time for civil servants and contractors to spend part of each month or week investigating new ideas for their work. Borrowing from the automotive industry, we can also build time into our processes to examine what we’re doing and figure out how it can be done better. One of our “big picture” proposals was to come up with a system of open labs and provide resources and advocacy for everyone at the center to have a forum to develop and promote new concepts.
Integrative Thinking is about thinking globally and acting locally. Across systems, disciplines, and organizations, we can all focus our effort more effectively when we understand what context we operate in. If you know where you fit in the puzzle and where you touch all the other pieces, it’s easier to build that integrated picture. One way we can develop that is by fostering a systems perspective. Integrated teaming where we bring together various subject matter experts is increasingly common, but we also need “intellectual owners” who have the expertise, communication, and team-building skills to put it all together.
Thinking integratively also ties into encouraging new ideas by building teams of people from fields that you wouldn’t traditionally associate and changing the dynamics of how teams interact. Another thing we must do is raise the level of awareness of what’s going on outside our bubble. Through on-site speakers and innovative media (one person suggested a streaming ticker tape, like the “Do You Want To Know More?” segments from Starship Troopers), we can better inform the community what is available to them.
However, the most critical context is our value to public and political stakeholders – Relevance. We can’t just claim it, either. We have to demonstrate our relevance in a way that is self-evident. If you have to sell it, you don’t have it. Relevance is best created by deliberate, resourced, and managed action. Serendipity just isn’t a good business model. We have to research what in our mission is of value, shape our programs and activities to create that value, deliver it through the appropriate mechanisms, communicate it back to our stakeholders, and continuously re-evaluate the process.
The Barrier Analysis team recommended that we get the ball rolling with a Value Management function to define what this means for the center, how to start implementing it, and coordinate with the wider Agency. With a “strategic resource wedge” of people and initial funding, we can also initiate a few pathfinders (like, perhaps, the open sourcing of a significant JSC problem) to learn how this will work, get some results, and build momentum for making value management a part of our process.
Ultimately, we believe barriers to inclusion and innovation can be overcome in four ways – leading through facilitation (not dictation), welcoming the pursuit of new ideas, understanding the context of what we do, and demonstrating relevance to the American people. The next step is to work with the I&I Council and the JLT to prioritize the proposals from the seven teams, identify “low hanging fruit” and high-impact items, and formulate actions for implementation.
This is where it will really get hard. This is where it is more important than ever to get buy-in from the JSC community, especially the managers and working-level people who really have to live with the day-to-day issues that don’t penetrate the bubble around upper management, and come up with programs and action items that meet our needs. I believe that center management at JSC recognizes this necessity and I look forward to seeing what comes out of the implementation phase.