Dr. Alexander Laufer has a model called IQ Plus. Basically, if you bring experienced
people together to talk,share stories, and test new ideas, the collective IQ
of the group is greater than any one individual's IQ.
I had the pleasure of observing IQ Plus in action by attending my first APPL
Knowledge Sharing Conference in December. Project managers from NASA
Centers around the U.S. gathered to talk about project management,to listen and
connect their experiences, to explore innovative concepts, and to discuss new
The first two days, December 4-5, were in Atlanta, December 6-7 in San
Francisco. The conference is held in two locations so that NASA project managers
on the East and West Coasts do not have to travel far from their Centers to attend.
In Atlanta, keynote speaker Terry Little, Program Director for the Joint Airto-
Surface Standoff Missile Program and one of the Defense Department's most
seasoned program managers, raised the temperature in the room with his intera
c t i ve presentation "Cheaper, Fa s t e r, Better In Action." Following opening
remarks by Dr. Michelle Collins and a brief presentation on APPL activities
abroad by Dr. Edward Hoffman,Mr. Little led a spirited discussion for nearly two
hours on managing risk, working in teams, selecting contractors and cultivating
relationships with them. He also spoke about such wide-open issues as what does
"leadership" mean in terms of project management. Dr. Laufer introduced Terry
Little as 'the most radical and most creative Project Manager' in the Air Force. At
55, Terry Little's most radical feat may be his longevity in the Air Force.
been challenging the status quo in the Air Force since 1967, and it is obviously a
role he relishes, advising his audience "Deal
with barriers and obstacles ruthlessly."
After the keynote presentation and the
discussion that followed, we moved to a cozier
location outside the conference room in front of the Emory Center's magnificent stone fireplace. As the warmth of the fire
helped folks to unwind, I seized the opportunity to get some feedback on ASK
|Todd Post demonstrates ASK magazine to KS participants.
It was a great opportunity for feedback because several of those who had articles
in the magazine were present. Richard Day, whose Best Practice on "Supplier
Integration" appears in the first issue, sat down and I showed him his article laid
out for the first time. Another person who came by was Steve Gonzalez, a softspoken
project manager from Johnson Space Center, who read the articles with
interest and then graciously thanked me for showing him the magazine.
None of us in Atlanta was prepared for the stunning presentation Steve gave
the next morning entitled "What About the Passion? The Changing Face of
NASA." Presentations were ostensibly about "The Role of Systems Engineering in
the Faster, Better, Cheaper Era," but if that's how they began, there was no telling
where any would end up as audience participation dictated the discussion more
In Steve's presentation, he talked about how a group of engineers in the
Command and Control Center at Johnson built a working lab out of a dream of
what they thought NASA should become by the year 2076. Part of their intention
was to regain systems engineering skills they felt they'd lost to contractors who
now had greater control of the hands-on work at the Center. But that was only the
half of it. The real story was the courage and conviction of Steve and his colleagues
who put together a plan that basically redefined the cutting edge at NASA.
In San Francisco, where the conference
resumed next day, D r. Robert Sutton,
Professor of Management Science and
Engineering at Stanford University and coauthor
of The Knowing-Doing Gap with
Stanford colleague Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, gave
the keynote address. Sutton and Pfeffer's premise is that despite the expensive
and time consuming efforts of many companies to try to improve their organization
through education and training, and by hiring management consulting firms
and reading all the latest research,the bottom line is that few actually bring about
any significant change in their management practices. Pfeffer and Sutton sought
to find out why there is such a discrepancy between a company's best intentions
and their actual accomplishments. NASA project managers had plenty to say
about this, but out of respect for those who let it all hang out I'll be discreet and
just note you should have been there.
|NASA project manager Dougal Maclise at Knowledge Sharing West in San
As in Atlanta, the second day began with a diverse group of presentations.
These all came under the broad heading "Challenging the System," and what the
project managers came up with was as idiosyncratic as you'd expect given such
freedom to be inventive.
"Poignant" is not a word we expect to use about a presentation at a NASA
conference, but that may be the best word to describe Dougal Maclise's presentation,
"Lessons from the Blind," about his first job after graduating college and
working for the Portland Public Schools as an equipment designer for handicapped
children. Dougal read a story about working with a blind boy named
Bobby Smith, helping him to walk alone from his house to school.
On a cursory reading of the story there would appear to be no apparent relationship
between a blind boy and NASA project managers, but as we discussed
after Dougal's reading, we considered it as metaphor for the challenges faced by
project managers daily. What made the story so compelling was the many ways
it could be interpreted, and the project managers who had the good fortune to be
there appeared to have no lack of imagination in coming up with interpretations.
Everyone seemed to be able to relate to the plight of the blind boy, and to
Dougal's plight as well.
Interestingly, no presentation in either Atlanta or San Francisco elicited as
much participation as this one, in part, I'm sure, because of its novelty.
blown away by how creative the project managers
were about what could be learned from
parables so seemingly unrelated to NASA.
Indeed, as the title of the story makes clear,
there were lessons to be learned from the
blind, and we studied them.
Both the Atlanta and San Francisco meetings ended with a group discussion
of an article by Secretary of State Colin Powell entitled "18 Lessons on
Leadership." Project managers were put together in small groups to discuss 6 of
the 18 lessons. "Lessons" may not be the best word to describe them, however.
They were more like aphorisms, ranging from familiar advice such as "Don't be
afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyards" to glib musings of the
sort "Command is lonely" and "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."
Project managers read the assigned lessons and discussed their relevance in
terms of their day-to-day experiences at NASA. Thinking back to Dr. Laufer's theory
of IQ Plus, I would argue it's group activities like this that provide the greatest
opportunity to realize the utility of collaboration, dialogue, and story telling .
|In San Francisco, KS participants discuss Colin Powell's "18 Lessons on
The individual presentations are great,interesting, compelling, and sometimes, as
in the cases of Dougal Maclise and Steve Gonzalez, spellbinding; but the most
value for the buck at a conference like this seems to me to be these group activities
where everyone is involved. The more people involved, the more knowledge
there is to share.
For me, attending the conference certainly increased my appreciation of the
challenges faced by NASA's best,and it emphasized the importance of knowledge
sharing as a professional development tool. It was also a great introduction to
many people I look forward to meeting again and learning more from about project
management and its ups and downs. See you at the next one.
|Todd Post is the editor of ASK Magazine and works for Edutech Ltd out of Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written for many publications in print and online.