Tag Archives: NASA Administrator

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

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

Honor Past but Celebrate Future, PLEASE!

Apollo 40th Logo

Apollo 40th Logo

These next few days portend a frenzy of Apollo anniversary activities.  Let’s see what we’ve got on the agenda:

Saturday, July 18:

Sunday, July 19:

  • John Glenn Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum will feature the Apollo 11 crew and legendary former Johnson Space Center Director Chris Kraft. Charlie and Lori are invited, as well.

Monday, July 20:

  • Various media events for the Apollo astronauts,n and a private lunch.
  • Newseum 40th Anniversary Educational Forum featuring hunky George Clooney’s dad, Nick, as moderator. Panelists include: Apollo astronauts @TheRealBuzz Aldrin, Charles Duke and Alan Bean, along with STS-125 crewmember John Grunsfeld and Goddard’s Dr. Laurie Leshin.
  • Evening Reception at the National Air and Space Museum. Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson will MC the event honoring Apollo astronauts and former Apollo employees — of whom we have a handful still working at NASA Headquarters. Plus, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will accept the Ambassador of Exploration Award on behalf of the late President John F. Kennedy.
Apollo Employees @ HQ

Apollo Employees @ HQ

Tuesday, July 21

  • Capitol Hill Congressional Gold Medal Presentation to Apollo 11 crew.
  • Appreciation Social with NASA Headquarters employees to honor Apollo astronauts.

This list is the tip of the iceberg. I can’t begin to list all the Apollo celebration events hosted at the NASA field centers.

Yes, we have much to celebrate at NASA. We’ve done some amazing things never thought possible four decades ago. We have every right, and responsibility, to reflect and honor the courage, dedication, daring, and engineering genius that lofted humans to the heavens. How boldly incredible is this accomplishment? Really! Bravo to all who played a part in the foundation of our space program.

But, here’s my quandary: We’ve spent a great deal of time planning for this anniversary. Just like we did for NASA’s 50th birthday. Meetings, telecons, vidcons, brain-storm sessions, product prep, website creation, and much, much MORE to pull together a respectable list of things to do.

Some part of me can’t quite reconcile all this activity. Does an agency retrospective propel us where we want to go tomorrow?

I pose this merely as a question, rather than a conclusion. Believe me, I get that we need to honor those who got us here. I understand the need to look back and marvel at our greatness. It’s our culture. If reliving these momentous achievements (which they TOTally were) makes us smarter for the difficult endeavors we face in current and future programs, then YAY!

But, here’s what I’d like to see: NASA expending the same effort showcasing all the amazing things we’re doing now, and will be doing in the future. For instance:

  • Clean Water challenges to replicate waste water recycling like we practice in space. We are pioneers in sustainable living. Our technology enables crewmembers on Space Station conserve and reuse every drop possible.
  • Orbital 365 events around the globe for every additional year we live/work/play on our incredibly complex orbital outpost — International Space Station.
  • Light the Candle community celebrations held EVERY remaining Space Shuttle launch, AND for significant engine test firings for new vehicle development.
  • Light Gardens created from home-made solar collectors to remind us how delicate and fragile the balance is between creation and consumption of energy, as our international crew of six onboard Station can attest every day in orbit 220 miles over our heads.
  • Star-gazing festivals where we turn out the city lights and look to the skies together. Our brightest star might just be Station zipping across the horizon.
  • Ticker Tape Parade

    Ticker Tape Parade

    Ticker tape parades for all Earthlings returning to the home planet. (Wait! Who even knows what “ticker tape” is? At least I can show you what it looks like in this picture.) So, in keeping with the times, how ’bout virtual confetti blasts synchronized through an iPhone app?)

I’m merely suggesting ideas to spark your imagination and get the conversation going. I’m not saying these celebrations would even work. But, then again, you never know ’till you try. Right?

Let’s face it, looking back is SO much easier than looking forward — which involves peering into the unknown. Though…that whole “unknown” thing is something NASA is particularly good at. ;)

So, what’s stopping us? Come on! Let’s “pay it forward.”  Tap into that amazing creative energy we have. Celebrate NASA’s today and tomorrow, while we honor the past.

Happy Apollo 11 anniversary!

First step for man...

First step for man...

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Filed under federal government, leadership, 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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NASA Leadership

Get-OUT-of-this-World Leader

All the NASA-verse is a-Twitter with speculation about a new NASA Administrator. Social media allows us to spread rumors beyond the traditional NASA hall-talk and space media club to every-day-man, who picks up the buzz on blogs and Twitter. With Twitterfall, Tweetgrid,Tweetmeme and others trending agents, we can easily track the chatter.

A recent tweet that caught my attention. The writer wondered why the space community seemed so pleased with the rumored selection of former astronaut Charlie Bolden. Here’s my answer: Charlie Bolden is a known quantity.

NASA engineers and scientists, though forever searching for the answers to the unknown, like to deal in ‘knowns’ whenever possible. What, you say? It’s logical, really. We seek what we don’t know by leveraging what we know.

We pride ourselves at NASA in thoroughly mapping strategy to address every contingency that could EVER conceivably happen, then rethink it over and again. We have contingency procedures for every step along the way. We want to manage the risk and operate in a world of known quantities. If we don’t know, we test and test and test again until we build up a database of knowns.

Same with leadership. We find comfort in the known – even if we don’t like what is presented to us. At least we know what to expect and can adjust accordingly. Known=good, unknown=bad. That simple.

Charlie Bolden comes from the human spaceflight world. Heck, he flew in space. He’s one of us. Known=good. 

The President will make a choice for the next Administrator of NASA.  Whoever that man or woman may be, we desperately need a natural born leader with humility, integrity and good sense. 

Here’s my definition of leadership: 

A leader is NOT the one who steps to the front of the line, but one who INSPIRES a long line of followers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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