The NASA Experience
I simply must give you an update on the conference I have just returned from. It was s-o-o-o-o good! If you’ve read my previous summaries of conferences (who could forget the UN BAWB conference of 2006) you will know that I’m hard to please – but this conference achieved it.
Imagine if you will, 1,300 project, program and portfolio managers from the one organisation seated in a very large ballroom ready to listen to the head of their organisation (not the PM Head, the head, head if you like). That was the atmosphere at the start of day one of the NASA Project Management Challenge, the annual gathering of NASA project, program and portfolio managers/directors.
I was privileged to present a paper and speak about my views on PM and how we approach things here at RNC. The presentation is on the RNC website now and the presentation and podcast will be on the NASA site before the month is out. It was truly an internal gathering and I was so lucky to be there. I normally find something pithy, caustic or humorous to say – but on this occasion, I was simply impressed! Impressing me is a big achievement for an individual let alone an entire organisation!
Let me share with you a few of the things that were said or I observed – the following is about PM so skip to the end if that’s not your thing:
- The head of the Kennedy Space Centre, Bill Parsons, opened with the admission that human space flight is a discretionary spend for the US, and that really it doesn’t make sense right now – however, he believes that unless they persist, their grandchildren will judge them harshly as missing opportunities and not having foresight. He went on to say they have an adequate budget – I have simply never heard anyone, anywhere say that before, it was mind blowing.
- He then described the next big missions and the projects around them – they are working on two manned missions, the first of which will have testing start in April ’09 with a view to flight in 2012. Yes, these are l-o-o-o-o-ng projects.
- The next Speaker, William Scolese – NASA Administrator (and no, please don’t think I am going to summarise all the speakers – just the ones I was seriously impressed by), said that NASA is in good shape at the moment, with 8 missions since the return to flight 5 years ago and the planned landing of a robotic mission on Mars this year. He was effusive (well as effusive as an engineer can be) about the cooperation and integration with and between agencies within NASA.
- There was lots of internal stuff about organisation structure, safety capability and focus – and the challenge for all engineering based organisations of getting the documents right – not too little, not too much and useable for reference when needed (sounds a bit like papa bear, momma bear etc, but I digress). I picked up on a great phrase – ‘just write down what you are going to do, then what you are actually doing and make sure documents match practice’ – sounds simple but like most organisations they too have a predisposition to making it harder and more complicated than need be.
- There was a wonderful acknowledgement that man is limited by the laws of nature – NASA engineers can plan for and manage around everything else!
- There was also a big focus on the definition of mission success – I always thought it was to get people into space – but it’s actually to bring them back safely….a chill ran down my spine.
- They acknowledged the challenges of language across and between disciplines, groups, geographies and cultures and again spoke about the difficulty of getting the communication, documentation and shared learning right.
- There was a lot of focus on the “people” side of things – allowing and supporting dissent where the dissent is supported by fact or strong belief in an alternative (but not just because one person thinks they wouldn’t do it that way); focusing on the fact that people work on projects and while they might be engineers you can’t expect them to behave consistently without a view to their own welfare; NASA recruits for attitude (once establishing the people have the basic IQ, education etc) they then look for the attitude of ‘failure not being an option’ with the creativity, flexibility, a big picture view and determination to execute. They say they look for paranoid optimists (isn’t that a nice phrase!).
- With NASA projects (a lot like most of the projects we work on) you can’t say for certain at the start (what has to be done, when etc.) They need people who can navigate through the challenges and obstacles without taking their eye off the end game – trust me, these are the sorts of things I love to hear and the sorts of people we recruit as well.
- On testing they do what they can but know that in the end each mission is also a test. The conditions vary, the people vary and any number of things can come up to distract and attempt to thwart success. Their challenge is to be sufficiently adaptive to respond and cope – these are the skills they can practice and test.
- On the subject of failure – they conduct reviews, collect the data and refer to it in relation to future missions (projects). They analysed data collected from each mission and discovered on each and every failure there is a root cause of failure to communicate, either in lack of transmission or failure to receive – however it happened human communication was at the root of all failure. Makes me determined to redouble efforts around highlighting and flushing out assumptions!
- In relation to organisational structure for projects they use all methods including a form of Agile they call “crash” (not a good word in the circumstances methinks but the message gets across). They’ve found this approach to be quicker but the risk profile is higher and it takes a superior skill set and person to manage it. In relation to functional vs matrix there was a recurring theme that functional works best (by this they mean everyone working on the project, reports to it – that’s really not rocket science but hey, if they’ve discovered it I’m happy to spread the word).
The bottom line is I found the gathering and the people to be stimulating, professional, a bit of fun, and basically confidence building. These guys understand that PM is about delivering the outcome, they are supported from the top to achieve their outcomes and the organisation is focused on facilitating their success. Remember this was an internal gathering and in addition to attending sessions and presenting I inserted myself in coffee groups etc. Not once did I detect cynicism, discontent, resentment. I did detect pride, commitment, determination and professionalism. These people liked and respected each other, and were willing to listen to and learn from different opinions and ideas. In short, I was impressed!
I’d love to adopt the tag line, ‘failure is not an option’ – but NASA already uses it!
Listen to an audio podcast of my presentation: http://pmchallenge.gsfc.nasa.gov/podcasts/2008/DianeDromgold.mp3
Or view my powerpoint slide presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/rncglobal/nasa-2008-pm-challenge-powerpoint