NASA: Cultural Trap Doors

This week, NASA’s Deputy Lori Garver hosted a Town Hall meeting at NASA Headquarters. She set aside time to answer questions from employees. NASA TV aired the Town Hall live so that NASA employees could benefit from the conversation remotely.

I asked a question about managing the complex issue of astronaut appearances, and offered a potential solution — astronaut career assignments in NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs and Office of Legislative Affairs. If you’re interested, you can read a previous post.

Lori’s response: NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, former astronaut, would call the shots on how the Astronaut Corps operates. She mentioned that Charlie met with the new 2009 Astronaut Class, and encouraged them  to act as Space Ambassadors (my paraphrase of her answer) during the many years before they fly a space mission. Appropriate response to the question.

Now let’s focus on the reaction among my NASA colleagues following the Town Hall meeting. Here’s a sample of what I heard the rest of the week:

I can’t believe you asked a question. (Shock)

I can’t believe you got away with asking a question. (More shock.)

I can’t believe you got away with asking THAT question. (Even greater shock.)

Did you get in trouble for asking a question? (Worried.)

Did you get in trouble for asking THAT question? (Expectation of trouble ahead.)

What happened after you asked that question? (Assumed reprimand.)

Do you know what’s going to happen to you? (Expectation of reprimand.)

Did anyone say anything to you after you asked that question? (Missing word: yet.)

I heard YOU asked a question. (Wink Wink, as in “same ole’ Beth.”)

I HEARD you asked a question. (Raised eyebrow-disapproval.)

I heard from SEVERAL people you asked a question. (Expectation of disciplinary action.)

I’d have been in SO much trouble if I’d asked a question. (I can’t believe you AREN’T.)

I’m glad you asked that question. (Support.)

That was a really good suggestion. (Validation.)

Do any of these comments surprise you? Do you find yourself most surprised that I would a question at all — much less in front of TV cameras. If so, let’s talk about our culture.

Whether we like it or not, we’ve all been socialized by the organizational culture we exist in.

I can’t begin to touch socialization resulting from childhood or society-at-large. I only want to explore organizational culture — where your paycheck comes from. We learn how to survive by watching those around us reap reward or punishment. We emulate the habits and patterns of those who look successful in our eyes.

Let’s be honest, how many UNsuccessful people do you look up to?

Look at the comments above. Most comments expose underlying assumptions of our organizational culture. Can you see them? Here’s what I see:

  • keep quiet,
  • fly below the radar,
  • hunker down,
  • do as you’re told,
  • don’t make waves.

Depending on your perspective within your own cultural environment, you could easily make assumptions about me based on the fact that I…

  • asked a question
  • in a Town Hall meeting
  • with a new Deputy
  • in front of TV cameras.

I’ll just get creative and list a possible range of value statements you might tell yourself about me. I’m sure I haven’t captured everything, but for the sake of discussion I’ll start with these:

  1. Arrogant.
  2. Attention-seeker.
  3. Careless.
  4. Clueless.
  5. Naive.
  6. Undisciplined.
  7. Trouble-maker.
  8. Time-waster.
  9. Change agent.
  10. Problem-solver.

I prefer #9-10. You don’t have to agree. And…many don’t. Side note: I hear “trouble-maker” used to describe me quite often. But, then again, I tend to unsettle those who find change uncomfortable. ;)

What do YOU think about someone who asks a question in a public forum — even though questions are actively solicited? Doesn’t the answer depend on how you’ve learned to survive or thrive within your organization?

But your real question may be, “Who cares?”

This is not just my story. This story is a symptom of a problem. I use it only for illustration purposes. It’s a story about assumptions we make about appropriate/acceptable behavior  — whether we know it or not. Don’t we assess motive and value about our colleagues’ contributions based on our personal perceptions?

I like to call our everyday assumptions: Cultural Trap Doors.

Let’s face it, aren’t our assumptions molded by years upon years of organizational pressure? If you think about it, we’re like cultural fossils with stripes and layers shaped under the weight of our experiences. Let’s at least examine what formed the patterns we fall into. I wish I could tell you the story of how everyone buzzed about the great ideas generated during the Town Hall discussion, or how eager we were for more conversations like this.

I’m not saying we don’t share ideas at NASA. We do. I’m only noticing, from this experience, that many of my colleagues feared for my “career” based on one simple question in a Town Hall meeting. Fear shouldn’t exist within a healthy organization — in my humble opinion. I see it differently:

In an open culture, individuals feel safe speaking out, sharing their ideas, and offering solutions.

Bravo NASA for having an open Town Hall meeting! What we need, though, is a safety net for those participating in the discussion. Cultural trap doors open up when we least expect them.

We can only get rid of the trap doors if we know where they are. If we want a truly open culture, let’s start the hunt!

"Cultural Trap Doors" by NASA's Resident Cartoonist Jim Hull

"Cultural Trap Doors" by NASA's Resident Cartoonist Jim Hull

29 Comments

Filed under culture, federal government, Gov 2.0, leadership, NASA, space

29 responses to “NASA: Cultural Trap Doors

  1. Keith Cowing

    You are setting a wonderful example, Beth!

  2. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for NASA: Cultural Trap Doors « Bethbeck’s Blog [bethbeck.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  3. Martha Wetherholt

    Your community thinks your reasonable question/comment was reason for worry! heck, i’m the one who asked about the Agency’s lack of support of Safety and Assurance which got a very confused response from Lori!!!
    Good description of our general culture though, I’m glad you put it out there!

    Go Beth, from another outspoken woman.

    • bethbeck

      Thanks Martha. Your safety question was “much-discussed” as well. I’m glad you started us off with a meaty issue to chew on.

  4. Dean

    Beth,

    Some years ago, I had a very similar experience! A new AA was making the tour and was proposing dramatic and controversial changes. After delivering the sales pitch, it was clear that the AA had no idea what we had been doing for the last 20 years. I asked some very probing questions and openly disagreed with the AA’s view on things.

    Three things to note:
    1) My questions prompted other ‘difficult questions’ relating to the new plan.

    2) My questions/comments solicited the expected “I can’t believe you did that!” from my co-workers.

    3) My questions/comments resulted in an SES leaving me a message thanking me for raising those exact issues. What I never found out was whether or not the SES had raised them or had just gone along with the AA’s plans.

    The AA did implement the plan. The plan failed to live up to the sales pitch. No consequences for the tough questions were ever directed my way.

    • bethbeck

      My office is great about discussing issues as well. I’m fortunate, as you have been. I heard mostly from those in other organizations, who experience different pressures to conform.

      I’m glad you asked hard questions, Dean. We only get better by thinking things through comPLETEly. Bravo.

      • Dean

        Beth,

        While that episode was in front of an auditorium, I have had some not-so-pleasant results from voicing my opinion.

        I was taken off a project because I showed in a couple of very simple charts how the technologies being investigated could never provide the benefit that managers were claiming.

        And I’ve also had to attend numerous “training” sessions that have followed cultural survey results…

        Just more indicators of your exact point!

  5. Beth,

    I am a polymath. We used to be more common and powerful than we are today. I really did grad work in physics and social psychology before beginning a career in IT. Quite a few people like my art. And some people appreciate my sense of humor.

    What you say rings very true. I did work down in the ranks at NASA from 1990 to 1999. The Columbia accident report held no surprises for me.

    Some people are starting to predict at least a partial comeback for people like me. If what you discussed in your posting was only true for NASA, the world would take little notice. Unfortunately for humanity, the quants in finance have done great harm to our society. That’s what is starting to gather attention for the limits of specialists.

    Oh — I live in the Maryland suburbs. Lori Garver knows who I am.

  6. Aerospace Engineer

    I would use the word “bold” for your action. It would be great if Lori and someone from your management chain would respond here and positively acknowledge the question, not necessarily to endorse your point of view, but to welcome constructive questions and criticism. That’s the way an organizational culture is shaped. As you say, in a healthy organization, the only reason you should have butterflies when asking a question like that is stage fright. If you phrase your question well, the higher-ups should just say “huh, let’s think about that.”

    • bethbeck

      I wrote this blogpost because I noticed so many reactions to my question. I think Lori and Charlie expect open dialogue — from what I’ve seen so far. The rest of our 18,000 workforce, however, may not quite so ready to speak. I’m curious what the next year or two will bring.

  7. I thought I’d post a comment online because 140 characters is just too short in this case. Here are a few thoughts that I had after reading your post and some of the discussion online.

    First, thank you. Thank you for being bold, for being open, and for being an inspiration to all of us. Cultural trap doors are all over NASA and uncovering them is one of those cultural taboo’s that we normally just don’t talk about. Instead, we’d just rather cover them back up as soon as we uncover them. This is an extraordinary problem but it’s a passion for solving extraordinary problems that creates the potential for extraordinary accomplishment.

    Secondly, I really appreciate that you are willing to share your ideas openly because breathroughs come from questioning assumptions and smashing paradigms. Plus, you are just so darn eloquent! In technically driven organizations, it’s easy to think about breakthroughs in terms of the technology, but not as easily when applied to the organization. NASA is long overdue for a breakthrough in terms of the organization itself. This HAS to be a conversation and starting it is never easy. To escape the mind numbing gravitational pull of our bureaucracy challenged organizational model, we really need leaders like you who are willing to identify and address the underlying assumptions. Contrary to popular belief, the thing that most impedes us at NASA is not a lack of risk taking. We manage and take big risks every day. The real issue for us is exactly what you talked about – the cultural trap doors, the drag of old mental models and the fear of questioning anything to the contrary. NASA’s cultural beliefs are a much bigger liability than anything else. Especially at an agency where we pride ourselves on a long and successful history. The challenge for us is that this success has been encoded in our the way we approach problems, validated by funding decisions, hardened into religious convictions, solidified into processes that govern the way we work, and forged into unchallengeable believes that are held so strongly that nonconforming ideas seldom get considered, and when they do, rarely get more than grudging support. It’s no wonder that posting openly about our cultural trap doors draws attention. I think it’s attention that is long overdue and just challenging these organizational orthodoxies is a step in the right direction that very few are willing to take.

    Finally, while big problems don’t always yield big advances, small ones never do. By working at NASA, it’s everyone’s job responsibility to work on the big problems that define who we are. However Pareto’s principle shows us that not everyone will contribute equally to those problems. Also, we often forget that true progress is an iterative process where the ultimate solution emerges through trial and error. If the problem is big enough (like this one), progress – of any sort – will be valuable, even if we never find a solution. It takes ingenuity, determination, and perseverance to solve the big problems. These are qualities are most present when the problem to be address is not only big, but soul-stirring as well. Thank you for devoting yourself to a problem that is consequential and essential to our future as an agency.

    • bethbeck

      Nick, you and your OpenNASA gang give me tremendous hope for tomorrow. You guys care SO deeply in what we can be as an agency.

      Our NASA brand boils down to “problem-solving against all odds.” That’s what we do. Our culture may get in the way, but passionate young engineers/scientists — like you — will push past the obstacles and create a new future.

      I’m excited!! Thanks SO much for charging in with these words of encouragement. You ROCK!

  8. Jeff

    Beth,

    I too am a person that speaks out and asks the questions many people want to ask but are afraid to ask. The reality at NASA, as I’ve witnessed it over the past 20+ years as a civil servant, is there is no safety net. Sure, there’s no overt action that supervisors / managers can take because there is the appropriate protection and oversight in place to preclude that; however, we have all either experienced it or know of co-workers who were passed over for an award, promotion or reassignment because they weren’t considered a “team player” or because they “rocked the boat” by asking questions that put a manager or chief in an uncomfortable position. Proving that of course is next to impossible which is why its use is so wide spread.

    • bethbeck

      I look at it this way: if I’m bitten by a snake, I need to identify the venom in order to get the right antidote. Otherwise, I’m at the mercy of the poison coursing through my veins.

      Identify the poison, administer the antidote.

      Same with toxic culture. If we can’t name it, we can’t fix it. So, at least we’re beginning the “identification process.” Let’s name what we see, then come up with an antitoxin.

      At least, it’s a start. Right?

  9. Chloe Casterlin

    If you think civil servants get punished for asking awkward questions, try being a contractor. We are often hired for our technical expertise, but bringing up issues or ideas that are not actively solicited is even more dangerous to one’s career.

    • bethbeck

      OpenNASA or the Space Tweep Society might be good “support groups” — kinda’ like a 12-step program for frustrated engineers. Kidding. But you might enjoy sharing ideas and talking issues within a supportive environment of space enthusiasts.

      Hopefully we’ll get better at this.

  10. Daniel Laughlin

    Sounds like the Beth Beck I remember:) You’ve hit the nail on the head when you called it a cultural trap door. Despite common fears, I have met at least as many managers at all levels who genuinely want honest questions and input as those who don’t. But I have met a lot fewer people willing to ask them than those afraid to ask them. Good job asking and a better job pointing out the cultural trap door (I think that is a CTD at NASA:).

  11. EEF

    Beth, wow, this article could not have come at a better time for me.. Although my time at NASA is not even close to yours, I have already experienced the very things you mention. At JPL it caused a lay off, I spoke up and pointed out what we were doing wrong and bam! I’m out.. At JSC I speak up and am told not to.. Of course no one will come out and say these things blatantly.. at JPL it was a budget cut, at JSC it’s we don’t have time to discuss. It really wears you out.
    Speaking up just for the sake of speaking up is of course not the way to go, but we should have that security -in any organization- to be able to ask, question and try to understand what we are doing as a whole. I have also seen situations where a collegue will recommend a solution to a problem and will be hushed..a day or two later the very idea will be adapted, without the recognition of the original person that came up with it. Recognition and awards.. huh.. don’t get me started on that one ;)

    • bethbeck

      We have MUCH work to do. But at least we’re talking about the unspoken rules we keep tripping over. I’m ready to re-pave the road. :)

  12. BD

    Beth:

    I’m a contractor at NASA, and didn’t accept the inherited fears of others when it came to asking questions. My approach to public fora is that if the managers say they want questions, I will take them at their word. If I get in trouble for asking something “troublesome,” then that’s my signal to pull the eject handle. If I get a scripted answer, I take that in stride. If I get the answer I want, I’m happy and pleasantly surprised.

    On the flip side of this coin, if someone asks me for information, I give it to them within the scope of my knowledge or authority. I don’t make a big deal out of “busting silos,” I just do it.

    Some of this takes a thick political skin. It also takes a certain willingness to look foolish, stupid, or naive for not knowing something or for asking a question that “everyone knows” the answer to. If I get the answer I want, though, it’s not a stupid question, is it?

    Keep asking questions. If the day comes where you DO get in trouble for asking a question when prompted to do so, well, you can always find the eject handle.

  13. Beth,

    I am glad that you are willing to stand up and ask the difficult questions. Someone has to do it.

    Personally, I have found that it is not only fear that keeps those around me from speaking up. A lot of it is from being beat down over the years anytime they tried to ask a question or make a suggestion; being faced with “no” after “no.” I’ve faced the same roadblocks, but I’m more stubborn than most, I guess.

    Unfortunately, from what I’ve experienced, when people are dismissed repeatedly, it hinders their creativity. They begin to reject their own ideas before they even have a chance to fully develop and stop asking questions altogether. They also become quick to shoot down suggestions from others, based on their own experiences.

    If we are truly to forge ahead, it is time to show through action that asking questions and offering solutions CAN precipitate change.

    Or something like that :^)

    • bethbeck

      I’m SO glad you’re stubborn. Without you, we wouldn’t have the Space Tweep Society. You started a communication revolution.

      We’ve started the conversation. Next stop: Change. (Picture flags waving and fireworks overhead.)

  14. I have made a career out of asking difficult questions and pursuing answers since I started working for NASA, 20 years ago. I can’t say there were never repercussions, but I’m still here. And I have been heard.

    In a world that, for all the politics, is governed by physics, we can’t afford to lie to ourselves or shield ourselves from the truth or other people will pay the price. I won’t lie to keep my job. I won’t be silent if people are at risk. I consider that a sacred trust I owe to the memories of seventeen heroes .

  15. It’s not just a NASA problem. This same tendency to fly below the radar exists in the cultures of other government agencies and other organizations. I think the people who speak up, make waves, and get noticed (as long as it’s done in a thoughtful, appropriate way) tend to be the rising stars who will eventually have considerable influence in organizations.

    As for the NASA Astronaut Office suggestion, I hope your suggestion is taken seriously, particularly the part about giving them all iPhones and encouraging regular posting to social networks to engage the public in what it’s like being astronauts. The 2008-2009 selection process was quite the opposite of this open philosophy, as any astronaut applicant knows.

  16. Stacey

    Pretty sure I have found a record number of trap doors in my short time at NASA. Many were found by asking the “wrong” questions.

    Why do you think kids ask lots of questions? It’s how they learn how to get along in the world. For me–I am happy to ask “Why” until I understand why. It helps me do a better job (btw-telling me it’s the “government and/or NASA way” is not a good enough answer for me).

    Glad I have good company.

  17. Space Race

    I am a contractor working for NASA. Several years ago we had problems in our group and the NASA managment decided to ask for anonymous input and thoughts about the what the problems were. The NASA managment shared the input but gave negative comments to the opinions rather than researching to see if the problem exsisted and why people were feeling as they did.
    Examples: Who ever said that, needs to find a new job. If you don’t trust your NASA managment then leave.
    Now, I will not even give comments or ask questions anonymously, and the culture surrounding contractors is a different story. Different centers hold contractors in different value lights. I will say JSC does not seem to have the same negative issues with contractors as the center I work for. I say that because I have been in both environments and have witnessed the difference. Keep the questions coming.

  18. It is amazing how similar software companies in the private sector can be to this.
    I have 2 examples from my own career, one at a 2000 employee NASDAQ traded company and one at a 350 person company, with almost an identical scenario. BTW, in the 2000 person company I actually got reprimended…
    I will stick with change-agent and problem-solver, as that’s what I’d like to think I do best.

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