Monthly Archives: June 2009

Don’t be Pug, the Biker Pooch

I met Pug, the Biker Pooch, yesterday morning at the motorcycle repair shop where my daughter’s death trap – I mean Bike – was getting worked on. Adorable little Pug. All decked out in his doggie goggles and head gear. He looked like a tiny Amelia Earhart. I fussed over him a bit, took his picture with my iPhone, then tweeted his likeness out to the Twitterverse.

But all the while, I kept thinking, “Am I witnessing Poochie abuse?”

I mean, really. Does little Pug have a choice? His owner, Nice Biker Guy, dresses him up, straps him on the back of his motorcycle and off they go. Does Pug, the Biker Pooch, get a choice? Does he like being strapped on the back of a motorcycle? Does he enjoy the outfit he’s wearing? Is he even safe?

At first I was thinking how sad for the little pup to submit to the indignity of doll clothes. Then I realized maybe the goggles really kept him safe. But hold on. His owner, Biker Guy, gets a real helmet, reinforced jacket, and heavy boots to protect him from flying rocks or, heaven forbid, a nasty spill. Will a little bit of head-mounted leather keep Little Biker Pooch from harm?

Nice Biker Guy told me Pug’s story and how he rescued the little pooch 12 years ago in the DMZ when Biker Guy served in the Army. Pug was a stray. He was scheduled to be “put down,” but Biker Guy asked for a chance with him. From that day on, their partnership flourished. Fast forward to today. Pug’s a pretty low-key kinda’ pup. But I have to wonder, is he just old? The little guy barely even moves. (Yes, he’s alive. He blinked at me a few times.)

So, here’s my question: Does Pug like the direction his life has taken, or has he given up the fight and accepted his fate as a teeny circus show animal? 

We’ll never know, now will we? But I started thinking about work. So many parallels.

Sadly, I’ve seen many a Biker Pooch at the office. You know what I’m talking about: employees who appear submissive and lifeless. Each day revolves around doing what they’re told – even if it means dressing up in leather and goggles and hopping on the back of the bike.  Ok, I’m being facetious…but sometimes it looks like that to me

Think about it. Some of your coworkers may seem to check reason at the door when they clock in. They may assume mandates given by a “superior” must be valid, whether or not they make sense. Time and again, I’ve had colleagues tell me our management must know what they’re doing – as if management has some magic formula to make wrong things right.

Now let’s look at that. Just because someone holds a position of authority, it doesn’t make him or her superior – in knowledge, experience, or even skill. A title on a business card can mean nothing more than words printed on paper. Why, oh why, do we condition our children to think that anyone with a title must be respected  – despite actions that prove otherwise? They grow up worshipping authority. Wanting it. Resenting when they don’t have it. Sorry, here I go on another tangent.

Quick story: I worked for a manager who blustered and brow-beat and strong-armed his way through any discussion. He would stake a claim (decision) and stick with it stubbornly, no matter the documented evidence that his claim might be an unwise course of action. At some point in the debate, he would switch his decision and announce that we misunderstood him because this NEW position had been his ONLY position all along. He blew smoke around the room to make others think they’d lost their minds — never admitting he’d changed his mind. I was amazed how easily my colleagues accepted blame, and bought the premise that they simply misinterpreted the manager’s position. One colleague gushed about how brilliant this manager was. His reason: everyone in the room appeared confused and clueless. I suggested perhaps the “brilliant manager” was spreading confusion to mask his own cluelessness. Ah, the heresy. 

My point: Just because management makes a decision, doesn’t mean the decision is right.

So what do you do when the decision doesn’t feel right? Ask questions. Nicely. Discretely. Respectfully. But, don’t just “follow” a decision because someone above you makes it. We all make mistakes – from the lowest to the highest levels. Checks and balances, the foundation of our entire federal system, play an important role in any organization…or family, for that matter. Listen to your gut!

If a decision doesn’t make sense to you, it’s probably because the decision doesn’t make sense. 

So let’s get back to Pug, Little Biker Pooch. He really doesn’t have a choice, now does he? He could bark and fuss and make a stink. But how do we know he didn’t do that in the beginning? How do we know Nice Biker Guy didn’t break down his resistance and force him into submission through the 12 years they’ve been together. How do we know Little Pug didn’t merely gave up trying? 

Moral to the story: Don’t submit to questionable decisions at work (or with family and friends) against your better judgment. Don’t assume others know more than you and, therefore, their decisions must be right.

Think! Question! Probe! Decide for yourself!

If, however, you like the goggles and leather head gear, by all means strap yourself on the back of the bike and enjoy the ride. If you don’t, take steps to STOP the MADness.

Remember: You have a choice, unlike little Pug.

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Filed under federal government, leadership, NASA

Dads: Be A Knight-in-Shining-Armor

I was sitting in church this morning during the Father’s Day tribute thinking about how much I appreciate my Daddy. He died forever ago in 1991. The gifts he gave me will live on…in me, my children, and their children. I grabbed the church bulletin and started scribbling my thoughts. I share them with you.

I grew up believing I could do or be anything I wanted.

Why?

Where did that come from?

Quick story: When I was five, I wanted to be to grow up and be a horse. Not just any horse. Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger. My brother wanted to be Roy Rogers. Yes, I’m dating myself. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Roy Rogers, he was King of the Cowboys in old Western movies. Trigger, his horse, was magnificent. I wanted to be just like him!  

Side note: If you watch this movie of Trigger racing, leaping over barriers, and rearing against danger, it may explain a great deal about me. ;) 

Back to the story: It never dawned on me that I couldn’t be a horse. And the really cool thing is, my parents never ONCE sat me down to give me “the reality check.” I’m sure they giggled over their little horse-girl. But I was never aware of it, if they did. At some point, I changed my mind about being Trigger, but I don’t remember when. I’m sure some other exotic “personality” inspired my imagination. Probably Robin of the Batman/Robin Duo. Who knows. (I never really had girl heroes, did I?) Here’s my point, though:

I have NO traumatic memories from being told what I COULDN’T be.

I’m truly blessed. I had wonderful parents. Mother was my best friend. But Daddy? He was simply larger than life itself. He could do no wrong in my eyes. He was the big, strong fortress where I was always safe.

Daddy was my Knight-in-Shining-Armor! 

What made him so special? Here are the characteristics I jotted down at church:

  • Unconditional love: I knew I could never do anything that cost his love. Never, EVER, under any circumstances! I can’t begin to describe the security in knowing this truth.
  • Laughter: Daddy’s sense of humor kept us laughing even in tight spots. He was the life of the party. He showed us how to laugh at ourselves and enjoy life to the fullest.
  • Support: He allowed me room to try new ideas and fail. I never heard a harsh word or criticism for poor choices. Instead, he offered a helping hand to lift me up if I stumbled, and a strong arm around my shoulders to steady me if I wavered.
  • Time: He always had time for me, even if that meant canceling appointments to be available for school events. He allowed me go to work with him if he worked on a Saturday. He played ball with me in the backyard, and built elaborate car racing ramps on the dining room table (though Mother wasn’t thrilled).
  • Strength: His shoulders were broad and strong. He could carry any burden I brought him. I never saw him wince. Not once.
  • Trust: He gave me the gift of trust. I didn’t have to earn it. Because he gave it freely, I worked even harder to preserve it.
  • Fairness: Daddy made decisions that always felt just and fair. He never dealt punishment out of anger, but made reasoned choices that we clearly understood – whether or not we liked them. (Once Daddy bought a go-cart for my brother and me. We fought so much over who got what turn that Daddy returned the go-cart. We begged him to give us another chance, but he stood firm — hard lesson in learning to share.)
  • Expectations: He challenged me to excel, but not in a pressure-cooker way. He gave me jobs to do, assuming I would succeed. With the twinkle in his eye and his reassuring nod, I never questioned that I would get it right.
  • Faith: Daddy was my guidepost.  My true North. Every problem I had, he pointed me to the Bible for answers. He walked the talk, and gave me Truth. I SO thank him for it!

Daddy was my shield and defender!

I never once questioned whether Daddy had my back. He was EVER spring-loaded to protect me — no matter what. On many occasions, I literally had to stop Daddy at the front door and beg him to let me take care of the problem. He couldn’t bear to see me hurt. He stood down — if I asked, and let me work it out my own way. That’s tough for any parent. I know, now that I’m a parent myself.

I truly believe Daddy’s unwaivering support gave me two mighty life-weapons:

Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence!

He raised me to value what I have to offer, and instilled confidence that I can successfully complete what I start – despite strong opposition, of which I am well acquainted.

Another story: Years ago, not long after Daddy died, I found myself in an emotional crisis. I didn’t know what to do. I sat down on the floor and broke down in tears, wishing Daddy were here to help me. I began to imagine the conversation I would have with Daddy, and how he would try to charge in and take down the bad guys. I stopped him, in my imagination, telling him I needed to fight my own battles. Then it hit me! I didn’t need Daddy after all. He’d given me all the tools I needed to resolve my crisis. He’d prepared me for battle my entire life. I laughed, stood up, and faced my fears head on, just like I would if Daddy were by my side.

His readiness to fight for me planted seeds of courage to grow shiny new armor for my own battles. 

Thanks Daddy! You’re the best Knight-in-Shining-Armor I could EVER have. I hope other fathers can learn from you. You have much to teach them. And, I hope my little list helps.

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Filed under Father's Day, NASA

Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

“Do you not know, my son, with what LITTLE understanding the world is ruled?”

Pope Julius III

I spoke to a group of  University of Texas LBJ School graduates in Washington DC last night. The sky let loose like a water stampede the VERY moment I stepped to the lobby door at NASA Headquarters to catch a cab for my ride over 19th and Pennsylvania. Great. Nothing like showing up bedraggled (I love that word). Thanks guys for braving the weather to make it there!

For our discussion, I pulled together a list of the undercurrents that prevent progress in the federal government.  In my early years at NASA, I charged forward with starry eyes and idealistic plans, only to trip over unseen obstacles on my way to my grand scheme to:

Change the World for Good. 

I know, I know. Goody two shoes. Believe me, I’ve been called worse. ;)

In my idealism and enthusiasm, I made a good many mistakes. I failed to see all the unwritten rules that govern how work is done — the CULTURE of the organization. Often, people steeped in the organizational culture are blind to it. So was I, at first.

My biggest (and hardest) lesson over the years:

Change does NOT appeal to everyone.

Shocking, I know. But as hard as it was for me to conceive, many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now.

Change = Unknown.

The unknown may appear dark and murky and unappealing to some. To others, the unknown is an intriguing, thrilling challenge.

Quick story: When my Mother came up to DC years ago, I suggested she hop on the Metro and explore what the City had to offer. Day after day I came home to find she hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t imagine all those missed opportunities, all the treasures left undiscovered — all within an easy 10 minute ride from the house. I mean, REALLY. WASHINGTON DC!!!!

When I pressed her, she made this comment:

“I don’t explore. YOU do.”

Wow. I’d never thought about it. I realized for the first time that I truly AM an explorer. I want to know what’s behind the unopened door. I look for new pathways, new approaches, new solutions. I want to know what I don’t know. My mother helped me understand why I was such a “pain in the backside” to my colleagues at work who dragged their feet with new projects or new approaches to old processes. They MUST have felt the same frustration with me my Mother did. They were perfectly content doing the same things the same ways as they always did before I entered the mix.

I began to reassess how I viewed those resistance to change. I needed a better understanding on how “the world is ruled” (Pope Julius IIII quote above). I offer a few “unspoken truths” I’ve gleaned about everyday behavior within change-resistant people and the organizations in which they thrive. 

Change-resistant Culture:

  1. Every new idea is an idea that didn’t work in the past.
  2. Don’t ask why. Do it because it’s always been done this way. 
  3. Activity IS the outcome.
  4. The answer is no, no matter the question.
  5. Hole-digging is easier than mountain-climbing. (Or, it’s easier to dig a hole than climb out of one.
  6. Ruts provide a narrow point of view. The deeper the rut…
  7. Comfort in process can mean discomfort with change.
  8. Bureau-train on autopilot. Conductor need not apply.

None of these are solutions. They simply give me a starting point to understand where we get stuck and how we might inch forward from here.

For example, look at #3: Activity=Outcome. I firmly believe this as the #1 reason the government resists telework/telecommuting initiatives. “Managing by Activity” means we measure success by how busy someone looks. We create “activity reports” and spend time filling them — which is “activity” in and of itself. We list the number of phone calls we make, or meetings we attend. Whew! Full day indeed! Yet, what did we accomplish? If managers measure performance by watching employees “be busy” rather than produce results, then how can a manager allow the employee to work outside his/her line of sight? “Managing by OUTCOME”…now that’s a scary thought to a culture steeped in activity-based success. We’re not good at giving employees a project with clear goals and deadline (OUTCOME), then setting them free to make the magic happen. If we were, we wouldn’t care where they got the job done — telework.

Here’s another example. Let’s look at #6: the dreaded rut (read habit). If we’re stuck in the rut and want out, what tools do we need? Maybe it’s as simple as a rope or a ladder. Perhaps we need blasting powder. What next? Do we fill in the rut to prevent backsliding or retreat? How do we fill the rut? Sand bags? Dump truck? Shovel? Now what? Where do we go from here? What new path do we want to forge? Do we need a compass? Do we face barbed wire? Forest? Desert? Sea? Whichever direction we take will require different tools. You get my drift. 

Unspoken “givens” in an organization influence how we get the job done, whether we know it or not.  

I haven’t even TOUCHED the topic of change in a toxic organization, which can represent a direct assault on the power structure. Those in power will resist change with all available resources to preserve even the smallest appearance of authority. But, alas, I’ll leave this for another blog-post.

Kudos to all of you out there COMMITTED to CHANGE in governmental process. Yay! You won’t be at all surprised to learn this:

 the Federal bureaucracy moves at glacier-speed.

Think about it. Have you EVER tried to stop a creeping ice mound? We have MUCH work to do, so GET OUT your PICKAX! But when you do, ALWAYS remember:

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

Hyman Rickover

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Filed under federal government, NASA, space

One Drop of Water for Space Acrobat, One Giant Bite Out of Poverty?

This week’s announcement by Space Adventures that Guy Laliberté will be Canada’s first private citizen in space really captivated my imagination.

Fire-breathing, stilt-walking Guy Laliberté is the founder of Cirque du Soleil. Repeat after me: CIRQUE du SOLEIL! No really. CIRQUE du SOLEIL!!! Incredibly talented individuals performing amazingly awe-inspiring feats that defy the imagination. (Hmmm. Does that sound like NASA?)

So here’s the deal:

For years, I’ve tried — unsuccessfully – to connect with folks at Cirque du Soleil to collaborate on a “Space-themed” traveling show. I can only imagine what a Cirque du Soleil Space Show might look like, but it could be no less than FABulous. NASA content shaped by wildly inventive interpretations? Oh, I’d buy a ticket. Wouldn’t you?

How ironic. While I’ve been dreaming of a traveling “Space on Earth” Cirque du Soleil show, their founder has been dreaming of traveling from Earth to space. So much so, he purchased a seat with the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, to ride a Russian Soyuz up to the International Space Station.  I guess we shouldn’t be so surprised. He’s accustomed to defying gravity here on Earth on his stilts. Why not extend his reach? (And Guy, no FIRE-BREATHING on Station, PLEASE!)

Now here’s another cool fact that excites me. His 12-day visit to Station is billed as the first social/humanitarian mission in space. His cause: clean water through his foundation, One Drop.

“Guy Laliberté’s POETIC SOCIAL MISSION in Space is a unique opportunity to share information about water-related issues with the world. His messages will spread ONE DROP’s dream of “Water for all, all for water.”

Some of you may wonder why we should care about water. After all, 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. Easy access to drinkable water, that’s the issue.

Here’s a quick overview: Less than 5% of the Earth’s water supply is freshwater and 1.7 billion people have no direct access to that 5%, according to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. In addition, fresh water is polluted in many developing countries. Guy’s One Drop website states: “90% of sewage is dumped into the water untreated.” The World Bank links water and poverty. Their 2006 report points out that inaccessibility to safe water traps developing countries in a cycle of poverty. People in 40% of the world in 80 countries suffer from extreme water shortages, hitting women the hardest. UNICEF estimates an average woman in rural areas can spend “one-quarter to one-third of her time fetching water” which leaves little time for school.  

Sobering. Shocking. Humbling.

And here I have a choice every day for my fill of tap, bottled, or sparking water, depending on how much I’m willing to pay. Now, let’s be clear, I’m absolutely unequivocally UNqualified to weigh in on this subject. I can, however, offer this thought:

Water is crucial for life ON and OFF this planet.

At NASA, we’ve been working water issues for decades. Traveling long distances in space means we can’t rely on re-supply. We have to carry or generate our own water. Exciting news! NASA recently reached a major milestone on Station: COMPLETE waste-water reclamation (including the dreaded liquid…urine). We have a spiffy new system to process six gallons of crew urine in six hours.

Distasteful, yes. But not bad-tasting. Really!

Expedition 20 astronaut Mike Barratt reports that Station’s new recycled water tastes like what you would expect in store-bought bottled water. Here’s how it works. Our technology onboard Station collects crew urine from the US toilet, boils off the water (to separate it from the briny nasty stuff we don’t keep), captures the vapor and mixes it with air condensation collections, and filters any impurities. Clean, purified water ready for drinking. Yum.

And who knows, our recycled water technology could be coming to a home or office near you! We bring you space technology, you apply it on Earth. Could be as common as your average water heater in the next decade, or sooner.

I’m excited about the world’s newest private citizen in space. Maybe, just maybe, we can make progress toward a cool “Cirque du Soleil-Orbital High,” based on Guy’s personal experience in space. Even more important, perhaps we can leverage NASA technology and know-how to help One Drop meet it’s goal,

Water for all, all for water.

Hey! It can happen. We’re NASA. We make the impossible possible!

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Filed under NASA, space

NASA: Thoughts on New Beginnings

With former Astronaut Charlie Bolden poised to take the helm at NASA, and Lori Garver as Deputy, I dusted off a letter of mine published in SpaceNews, January 21, 2002. Much of it still applies. I offer a partial reprint.

NASA exists as a paradox, a quandary, a political dilemma.

Unparalleled in the federal government, NASA’s mission is bounded only by the expanses of the heavens and limited only by the human imagination. Our inability to consistently communicate the wonder and magic of space to decision-makers who hold our purse strings stifles our progress.

NASA personifies the innate, never-say-die human spirit that conquers barriers and pushes beyond limitations. NASA ignites the spark that flames the human desire to improve, to learn, to grow. NASA embodies the pursuit of knowledge in unexplored regions of the universe, as well as the universe of the mind.

NASA is a uniquely American icon.

The public absorbs NASA images each day from TV and print advertisements, motivational posters, books, television programs and movies. NASA symbols adorn T-shirts, toys and trinkets. As a brand name, NASA evokes awe and wonder and delight beyond the borders of our nation, yet carries little leverage with political heavyweights with the confines of the beltway.

NASA may boast of a constituent base as broad as the world community or as narrow as the astronaut corps, or scientific investigators tied to a specific mission.

Private industry may applaud NASA for opening the frontier of space and awarding large aerospace contracts or complain bitterly to Congress that we prevent entrepreneurs from gaining affordable access to space.

NASA may appear an untapped reservoir of risk-takers who dream of barriers yet to be broken or an aging agency run by risk-averse, pocket protector-wearing bureaucrats. 

So I offer a few thoughts to our Next Administrator:

You have the power to contradict the contradictions. You bring new eyes to NASA. Yes, you’ve been here before, but you will ask new questions at this new beginning. You will mark this agency with priorities unique to your interests. This part of the dance can be quite uncomfortable to those unused to dancing.

Change of any kind can be unsettling to those wedded to the security of the status quo.

Douglas Adams once said, “There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something more bizarre and inexplicable.

I’ve never met you, but those who have speak highly of you. I listen with great encouragement. If you were to ask me what I want for you, it would be this:

Vision

To recognize all that’s wrong with NASA, yet behold an uncut diamond ready to be shaped and polished with steady, skilled hands.

Wisdom

To hear from opposing viewpoints both inside and outside the power structure, season them with common sense and insight, and form fair judgments.

Discernment

To detect deception when presented as truth, to distinguish between public good and personal gain, and recognize the strings attached to any good deals.

Integrity

To say what you mean and mean what you say, stand by your word, and create an environment of trust.

Patience 

To allow time to develop the correct solution rather than the fastest answer, and withhold judgments until the facts are clear.

Courage

To walk the narrow path and stand for what is right, not what is easy; to stretch yourself and others beyond the comfort zone.

Humor

To take yourself lightly and laugh easily.

I welcome your fresh look at who we are and what NASA has become in the years since you were here last, and assume you’ll bring a healthy skepticism about what we take for granted. I welcome your genuine concern for shaping NASA into a nimble and responsive federal agency.

I look forward to probing questions, which force us to look honestly at ourselves.

Yes, you will bring change, and change can be unnerving. Will you wield a scalpel? Will we feel the pain of incision? I, for one, prefer the pain of incision to the malignancy of indecision.

 Welcome home to both you and Lori! Best wishes as you navigate the confirmation process in the next few weeks.

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Filed under NASA, space