Edward J. Hoffman is CEO of Knowledge Strategies, LLC, Senior Lecturer at Columbia University, and was NASA’s first Chief Knowledge Officer and founder of the NASA Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership.
Matthew Kohut is a managing partner at KNP Communications and a former major communication advisor to NASA.
Laurence Prusak is Senior Lecturer at the Information and Knowledge Strategy graduate program at Columbia University and a former strategy consultant to Hoffman at NASA.
Below, Edward, Matthew, and Laurence share 5 key insights from their new book, The Smart Mission: NASA’s Lessons for Managing Knowledge, People, and Projects. Listen to the audio version—read by co-author Edward—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Intangibles drive performance.
Intangibles are hard-to-measure essentials of modern work that drive performance and well-being. There are six intangible principles that are associated with mission success in complex undertakings:
- Knowledge – Knowledge is necessary for solving your most complex problems, creating innovative outcomes, and finding ways to keep your project on its way to success. The most successful teams have ways to develop, retain, and transfer knowledge quickly across their team.
- Learning – There is no question that we will continue to face a world characterized by chaotic, transformational, and continuous change. In such an environment, knowledge is dynamic, and learning at the individual, team, and organizational level is essential.
- Stories –Stories are a natural advantage for people who are looking to convey knowledge in a context-rich, meaningful, and interesting manner. The best teams start with a carefully crafted vision that defines, motivates, and provides measured guidance as we seek a mission destination. Before humans went to the moon, they created stories urging the need to reach the moon.
- Culture – One of the qualities associated with intangibles is that they are synergistic. The combination of variables that come together can either promote success or work against desired outcomes. The most successful teams build a culture of behaviors that encourage knowledge-sharing, learning, and collaboration. Without a team culture of openness, inclusion, and respect, the other tangibles do not work.
- Teaming – All work is done in teams. This is a vital lesson that is easy to see but often ignored. We train and certify individuals, but how much do we prepare them for building successful teams? Resources spent on identifying and building a team’s capability of working together ensures that team’s success.
- Global Collaboration – Collaboration is also essential for a smart mission. More and more work is now done with expertise from around the world. It is important to establish the basis for global collaboration.
At the beginning of the Covid 19 Pandemic, there was a global shortage of ventilators. Senior leaders at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) quickly formed a project team to design a ventilator prototype assembled with commercial, off-the-shelf parts. None of the team members were experts in the development of medical devices. David Van Buren was tasked with building a small team that was diverse in age, gender, and race. Terri Weisburg, the team executive assistant, described that David looked for a team that was creative, adaptive, resourceful, forceful, yet kind. Importance was placed on interpersonal collaboration and flexibility.
“Organizations have to respond with a dynamism that integrates critical thinking, technology, and the human element.”
The VITAL project team (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally) required a learning mindset. Since this was not their domain of expertise, the team met with a network of external experts in healthcare and ventilators throughout the development process. Their team culture encouraged honest feedback and reviews as they listened to clinicians to discuss designs and eventually start testing the prototypes. They practiced radical transparency and open-editing of requirements and project materials for the device. Even under tight deadlines, the VITAL project team focused heavily on team collaboration and sharing knowledge, which were essential for the ultimate success of that mission.
2. Account for the nature of work today.
We are living in a time of what John Kay and Mervyn King characterize as radical uncertainty and profound complexity. Success today does not guarantee success tomorrow. There is a need to design teams and organizations to work effectively with the six intangibles necessary for a smart mission. This is a continuous challenge as technologies, demographics, and economies change. Organizations have to respond with a dynamism that integrates critical thinking, technology, and the human element. A smart mission demands spaces for people to reflect, learn, share knowledge, collaborate globally, and create stories that point the way forward.
3. Be realistic about the relationship between people and technology.
As people become increasingly dependent on digital tools, the key to organizational success is recognizing the human element as the essential driver in this equation. It is vital to acknowledge the role of technology while understanding that knowledge and learning are fundamentally social in nature.
“Effective teams are intentionally designed, developed, and sustained through deliberate cultivation and ongoing commitment.”
It is vital that as we move forward with digitalization, AI, and other technologies that the human element is driving the direction. After the NASA Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, American physicist Douglas Osheroff was a leading member of the investigation panel. He concluded that the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as the shuttle’s insular foam that caused the tragedy. Organizational culture refers to the basic values, norms, beliefs, and practices that characterize the functioning of any team. The focus should be on the people, the collaboration, and the connections that we have with each other. It’s the human element that ensures the success of our missions.
4. The team level is ultimately where innovation, experimentation, and adaptation take place.
The importance of “teaming” was so important to NASA that it devoted extensive resources to understanding what contributed to successful team performance. Effective teams are not just collections of talented individuals who figure out how to be successful through trial and error. Effective teams are intentionally designed, developed, and sustained through deliberate cultivation and ongoing commitment.
5. Competitive edge gives way to collective intelligence.
Teams alone provide the resources needed to make rapid decisions, since they alone have the “ground truth” that comes from proximity to the work itself. What is the right amount of autonomy for teams? What are the implications of risk and failure if a team goes too fast? Decision and execution speed have to be considered in relation to knowledge and culture. A leader’s ultimate task is to make and promote those smart decisions.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Edward Hoffman, download the Next Big Idea App today: