| Like most of us, I've had
to think hard about what makes for a successful project
manager. Haven't we all read, or written out for colleagues,
lists of requirements? I bet we can recite them in our
Project managers need the ability to:
I don't know about you but I have a hard time with these
lists. Of course these abilities matter, but for me just
one stands out as the defining characteristic of any good
project manager, and this is one usually not included
in the list or easily encapsulated in a single word. That
characteristic is his or her willingness to challenge
the conventional way of doing things.
- Etc., etc., etc.
This is something all good project managers do by
nature, I think -- what we're hardwired for, if you
will. Look back over your own life and I bet you'll
see that it is something you've been doing from a very
early age. In school, we didn't confine ourselves to
'staying within the lines' even when our teachers judged
this as disruptive, and perhaps even suggested we were
As a project manager, I've been in situations where
I've had to rethink the conventional ways of doing things.
On the first hardware project I managed, for instance,
there were just five months to get from funding to flight.
The pressure on us was tremendous, and, given the timeframe,
made for a very high chinning bar. The project involved
testing an ultra-high-temperature ceramic material for
use on reentry vehicles. If the project was successful,
the results could lead to revolutionary changes in the
design and protection of spacecraft. Not only was it
a high-profile mission for our team but also for the
Center. At Ames we normally developed material and payloads
and let other Centers fly them for us. This was our
first chance to handle the entire flight experiment.
That we were operating under such a tight timeline meant
there was no room for error.
One of the biggest challenges to our success turned out
to be the machining of some specialty materials. We had
a two-week period scheduled for this. Everything seemed
to be going well at first. We located a vendor on the
East Coast, and their computers read the files we sent.
After five days the vendor called to say the output was
not coming out like we had hoped.
you have to choose your battles, but if you're not
willing to fight you don't win any.
Roaring along until then, the team's morale took a
nosedive as attitudes from the top down fell flat. Once
the shock wore off it was apparent that if something
didn't happen quickly we'd be paralyzed. No one had
faith we could turn it around. Our Chief Engineer was
saying things like, "We gave it our best shot," as if
he was admitting we should throw in the towel.
I needed to make something happen before things got
completely out of my control. When the leaders announce
they are giving up, the rest of the team has little
incentive to press on. "We gave it our best, but it
just couldn't be done" might be the dignified way to
say you're resigning yourself to defeat, the status
quo response, but I had no intention of giving up yet.
I was already thinking how best to engineer our recovery.
I adopted the attitude that we were going to find someone
else to machine the materials, and it would get done on
time. It was going to be a huge test of my leadership
skills. The timeline we'd been given for the project was
enough of a test -- now I had to find time to recover
in a schedule designed with no room for error. Despite
the skeptical looks I got, I forged a plan and proceeded
as if this was business as usual.
vehicle before flight with two of the four Ultra
High-Temperature Ceramics (UHTC) strakes visible.
Business as usual? Well, hardly. We started out by
going through the phone book. Three of us worked the
phones and called every vendor in the book. Nineteen
of twenty had no idea what we were talking about. When
we mentioned the name of the material, they either were
not willing to take the risk or the timeline was too
short. The one out of the twenty who did recognize the
material would say something like, "You know, I attended
a conference awhile back where there was someone who
worked with that type of material," and that led to
another twenty calls.
After a long phone trail, we finally found two companies,
each of whom could do part of the job. The end of the
story is, we got the materials machined and met our
I'm proud that the team got back on track and we accomplished
our goal. For that to happen, it required me to deliver
on what I said I could do, which was to deliver to a
tight schedule. This is what served as the impetus to
get the others back on track. Oftentimes, challenging
the status quo is about simply believing in oneself.
To make things happen you also have to fight sometimes
for what you believe in. Again, think back to when you
were a kid. Remember how sometimes you got one of those
teachers who respected you for your individuality and
who appreciated your commitment to sticking to your core
focused on the core requirements is critical to
meeting costs and schedule.
I've been in situations that tested my core values.
On another project I was leading, we had what looked
like plenty of time from funding to flight. It was a
straightforward mission. All we intended was to launch
a vehicle modified to include experimental materials,
study it as it reentered the atmosphere, and then recover
it. The Pentagon informed us that because our mission
"appeared" to conflict with the Strategic Arms Reduction
Treaty (START), we may not be able to recover our vehicle.
We would need explicit Pentagon approval to recover
our vehicle, but their expectation was that approval
would be granted. A two-month approval process dragged
on for eleven months without approval or denial. We
proceeded to design the flight as if we'd be allowed
to recover the vehicle.
They finally approved recovery of the vehicle, but
stipulated that our data must remain classified. You
can probably imagine my frustration. After waiting this
long for the first decision, I had to decide was it
worth it to fight this decision. Whereas some project
managers might have gotten fed up and accepted the ruling,
the status quo, I dug in my heels and said 'no,' I've
got stamina to keep going and I'm going to fight this
one. It was a NASA flight experiment for the Aerospace
Industry and for NASA -- we needed this data. I estimated
the value of the mission would drop by 80 percent if
the data were classified.
It's true you have to choose your battles, but if
you're not willing to fight you don't win any. It was
a risky strategy, perhaps a bit bold, but our team truly
believed the data met the requirements for non-restricted
distribution. As it turned out, we won them over.
Everyone has to adopt his or her own theme song. For
me on this project, it was one that was popular on the
radio at the time. The refrain went, "I get knocked
down, but I get up again." It just seemed to fit how
I felt on this mission. They tried to knock me down,
but I kept coming back. You need to adopt your own fight
song. Make it one you draw strength from. Where to find
that strength? Start by looking at your core values.
As it was, my song played on like a broken record.
On this same mission I got knocked down again. Another
national lab approached us with an offer to develop
and provide GPS equipment to track our reentry. They
had been looking for funding for a long time to develop
their GPS equipment. There was pressure on me from the
Air Force to accept the offer. The Air Force had helped
us out in the past and now wanted this from us. No one
could believe it when I turned the offer down. The pressure
to accept came down even heavier when the other lab
offered us the equipment for a greatly reduced price.
Again, I said 'no.'
In cases like this, knowing what NOT to do can be as important
as knowing what to do. I haven't once regretted the decision
I made in this case. It was uncomfortable to be the 'bad
guy' in this instance, but I said no because I felt it
would have diverted our personnel resources and distracted
us from our mission. Strong leadership requires making
unpopular decisions sometimes. The status quo thing to
do would have been to try and keep everyone happy, but
I drew a straight line in my mind as to what I saw was
necessary to achieve a successful mission and never wavered,
and we did have a successful mission, I believe, because
we remained focused. Remaining focused on the core requirements
is critical to meeting costs and schedule.
to decide who you want calling the shots, yourself
or someone else.
You can't always do what people want you to and expect
to be loyal to your own core values. There will always
be somebody with a competing interest there to challenge
you on a judgment call. You've got to decide who you
want calling the shots for you, yourself or someone
else. That's why I believe challenging the status quo
means challenging yourself to 'Do the right thing.'
When you know what's right, you only need listen to
- A characteristic of any good project manager is
his or her willingness to challenge the conventional
way of doing things.
- To make things happen you also have to fight sometimes
for what you believe in.
- Knowing what NOT to do can be as important as knowing
what to do.
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Salute is the Associate Director of Aerospace
at Ames Research Center. She has managed many NASA
projects including those involving flight testing
of thermal protection materials, commercial technology,
commercial applications of remote sensing, and remote
sensing science projects.