not sure I knew what I was getting myself into, but it
seemed like a reasonable way to deal with the pressures
our program was under. At the time manpower levels and
budgets were being slashed left and right, and it wasn't
just our Explorers Program at Goddard Space Fight Center
(GSFC). The whole NASA community was being downsized,
and yet we were still expected to run effective programs.
As a Program Manager, you must try to create as much
synergy as appropriate between projects. You look for
ways that your Project Managers can share resources,
ways they can work together and develop common solutions
to management and technical problems. I was able to
achieve these goals and others by taking on a unique
Each project was given only so many slots -- full-time
equivalent (FTE) personnel -- and I deliberately wanted
to spend those slots on good technical people, such as
instrument systems managers, systems engineers, and resource
analysts -- the folks who accomplish the real work on
the project. To maximize our technical resources and keep
the program overhead down, I decided we would keep a thin
layer of management. The management layer I thought we
could manage without was the Deputy Program Manager and
Deputy Project Managers. I told each Project Manager that
I would act as his or her deputy. In addition to reducing
our overhead while maintaining technical positions, I
felt this would change my relationship with the Project
Managers from boss to supporter. It would give them a
beneficial reason to keep me regularly informed on their
projects' status and issues. I could be a consultant and
make recommendations without threatening their authority
or accountability. Finally, it would give them an additional
resource during periods of peak demands on their time.
|The NASA Explorers
Program's mission is to provide frequent flight
opportunities for world-class scientific investigations.
Pounding the Beat
obstacle in my role as deputy turned out to be people's
attitudes as to how a Program Manager was supposed
to be treated on the floor.
It seemed like a plausible solution. Of course, I was
not totally naive as to the difficulties. My time was
hardly at a premium. No Program Manager can predict the
exigencies that can pop up month-to-month, week-to-week,
and even day-to-day. I believed, however, I could handle
the added responsibility and still lead an effective program.
The key to running a successful program is getting
good people to work with you, and I had an excellent
cadre of Project Managers. Also, I had hired a Program
Business Manager with a keen understanding of the technical
end of the program. This proved to be an enormous help
to me, as I could rely on him to deal with the broader
issues of the program when I was involved in specific
The main obstacle in my role as deputy turned out
to be people's attitudes as to how a Program Manager
was supposed to be treated on the floor. A few staff
members at first seemed nervous and disoriented. There
was even a bit of that old careful-what-you-say attitude.
Eventually, as I became a familiar presence, they were
able to relate to me as they would any other deputy.
With the Project Managers, there was never any nervousness
over how I should be handled. I suspect this was due
in large part to the kind of working relationship we
had already established. On the XTE project, for instance,
when the Project Manager, Dale Schulz, asked me to address
a problem concerning the interface between one of the
major instruments and the spacecraft, he knew I would
not blindside him by doing something we hadn't agreed
on beforehand. I also kept him informed every step of
If I did sometimes second guess a Project Manager
-- and there were indeed times I had a difference of
opinion on matters -- I never did so publicly. My approach
was always to discuss it with the Project Manager privately.
What I had to say never was meant as a directive; it
was always part of the exchange that occurs normally
between a Project Manager and his or her deputy. If
I made my recommendation and the Project Manager felt
differently, that was fine. I respected my Project Managers.
Naturally, I would not have hired them otherwise.
Quick Change Artist
One episode during this period highlights the quick-change
art I had to sometimes practice. When it was necessary,
the program Manager would step to the fore and the Deputy
Project Manager stand in his shadow.
At one point, while XTE and another of our high profile
projects, ACE, were still under development, Headquarters
wanted us to start operating on a fixed price basis, what
we now refer to as cost-cap missions. In return they promised
to guarantee that funding would be available as needed.
what a benefit it would be to our program to form
a partnership with Headquarters.
The Project Managers were uncomfortable with engaging
so directly with Headquarters, and understandably so.
They were worried it would turn into something much
too intrusive and do more to disrupt our work on the
projects than facilitate any kind of useful partnership.
I felt differently, and here's where my leadership as
a Program Manager had to come forward.
I understood what a benefit it would be to our program
to form a partnership with Headquarters. I had been
working with Headquarters for some time, at one point
spending up to a day per week there, interfacing with
Program Executives, Division Chiefs, discipline scientists,
and others to cue them in on what was going on back
at the Center (GSFC), all in an effort to improve communications.
While it was an expensive loss of time in the short
run, I knew in the long run the dividends it would pay
would be enormous.
I had to work with my Project Managers and their staffs
to convince them that this was a good deal. Ultimately,
I succeeded, and in the end I would say the arrangement
we struck with Headquarters was very successful. It
forced us to bring our projects in a box, as it were,
and that was as important a team-building exercise for
Explorers as anything. We dug out those things that
were not absolutely necessary from the budget and took
the funding that was associated with them and put it
back into the reserve fund, allocating the reserves
to the subsystems and instruments, where it could do
the most good.
I use this example to highlight that my team was willing
to follow me because I had earned their trust working
closely with everyone on all the projects. I don't know
how many Program Managers would have had the same success
with their teams, and I don't mean to suggest that I
had a better relationship with my managers and staff
than other Program Managers did with theirs; but I believe
I had the advantage of being involved in each project
and had built a level of trust with the Project Managers
and their teams, and this made it possible for me to
occasionally lead them where they were not prepared
yet to go on their own. Certainly they would have gone
along as the program Manager directed, but how effective
a leader are you if they are only going half-heartedly
or, worse, harboring a grudge?
That I was able to handle the dual responsibilities
of a Program Manager and a deputy Project Manager, I
believe, is a testament to the talent we have in Explorers.
Even with the many projects we had going, I never once
felt over-burdened. That's because few problems degenerated
into a crisis. We had competent professionals on staff
to solve problems before they ever reached this stage.
Certainly, accepting the responsibilities of a deputy
Project Manager added demands on my time, but that meant
I had to refine my time management skills, and so I
did. I juggled what I needed and we got the job done.
In the end the Project Managers and their staffs were
satisfied, I was satisfied, and we were all able to
operate an effective and efficient program.
- This age of paradox that requires you to do more
with less demands paradoxical solutions, for example,
the need to serve at the same time as the leader and
- "Adaptive leadership" is required to help the organization
do what it has never done before.
- Soft is hard. Gaining the trust of your followers
will grant you more influence than any formal authority.
Nowadays, contradictions and paradoxes are central to
project management, for example, formal and informal processes,
inward and outward attention, enabling and intervening
leadership, and relying on analysis and intuition. Can
you share with us how, and when, you became more aware
of the need to manage contradictions? Can you share with
us examples of paradoxical solutions that you have seen
employed by successful project managers, or that you have
employed in your own projects?
Search by lesson to find more on:
Barrowman is the Deputy Director of the Goddard
Space Flight Center (GSFC) Space Sciences Directorate.
He has been a project manager with the GSFC Flight
Projects Directorate since 1985, managing attached
shuttle payloads, the Explorers Program, and the
Hubble Space Telescope Program. Mr. Barrowman was
twice awarded NASA's Exceptional Service Medal.
Recently, he received the GSFC Award of Merit, Goddard's
highest honor. He is a member of the American Institute
of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a member of the
Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association,
and past National President of the National Association