| Crash and Learn
I made several appearances at NASA Headquarters (HQ) to
brief higher-ups on the status of my program when I was
the program manager of a Joint Sponsored Research Alliance
(JSRA). Early on in this endeavor, I learned a key lesson
in working with multiple customers. Always know the folks
you're meeting with, and always tailor what you're going
to say based on who you know will be there.
I learned this the hard way, I'm afraid to say, after
getting thrown out of people's offices. What can I say?
-- I'm a slow learner. I wasn't quite as attuned to the
personalities in the room as I should have been, what
their requirements were, what their problems might be
with what I was saying; I failed to realize that I was
basically perceived as a threat, a bringer of very bad
to realize that I was basically perceived as a threat,
a bringer of very bad tidings.
"Hey we've got this great program back in California,"
I said, and from the word 'go' they were hammering me.
They didn't want to hear anything about a program aimed
at developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology.
"This is not going to work! This is not the kind of
airplane we want! Why are you telling us about this!"
From their standpoint, I was the enemy, someone who
would suck up resources they needed in other areas.
I should have seen it ahead of time. The thing is
I did see it, but I thought all I had to do was show
up and explain how successful the program was and voila,
they were in my pocket. Yes, I knew how they were fighting
for their other platforms, how they had their own constraints
and clients whom they had to please, but I believed
in my heart that this program was important for NASA
and that I could convince them of it.
What I failed to recognize was that people are not convinced
just because the seller believes she has a wonderful product.
The seller needs to understand what the buyer wants from
supporters at HQ by putting yourself in other people's
shoes and learning what do they want to get out
You cultivate supporters at HQ by putting yourself in
other people's shoes and learning what do they want
to get out of this. In my case, I imagined that I was
on the other side of the table and I've got a tight
budget and I'm looking at having to cut programs. "Tell
me why should we keep you alive?" they're going to ask.
I think, "What would I want to hear if I was in that
position?" I would want to make sure I had a viable
program, a program that I could get recognition for,
one I could get congressional backing for; it should
be successful, and it might as well be unique too. Even
better, it should NOT have to cost a lot of money.
And that, basically, was how I packaged it.
flight over lakebed. Click image for larger view.
But before I went anywhere near HQ again, I did some
serious training. I got in shape. You might even say
I went to boot camp.
Mainly I found people who appeared regularly at HQ
to talk about their programs and used them as a sounding
board. We set up role-playing sessions, or what we endearingly
referred to as our "murder boards." Folks from my Center
and other partners in the JSRA pretended to be my audience
back at HQ. We didn't just pick people arbitrarily;
we looked for ones with areas of expertise similar to
those we knew I would interface with at HQ. I briefed
them with the charts I was going to take, they told
me what I'd be killed on, and I changed what I had to
in order to stay alive. When I went back to HQ, it still
didn't feel like I was among friends, but at least nobody
kicked me out of his office.
"Here's my understanding of where you guys need to
be, the missions you need to be looking at, the platforms
you want to support."
Basically, I just figured out what mattered most to
them. The information I gathered straight out of their
reports. I said to them, "this is what you guys want,
and this is how I can deliver."
"This airplane is going to provide you with sensors
that are better than any of the ones you've currently
got. These sensors you'll be able to use on the platforms
you're already flying and at a much lower cost."
I brought charts that were worth more to my program
than an original Picasso. Talk about visual aids, I
had one with 40 pictures showing all the things we were
doing and how they were interrelated. It was eye watering.
They were blown away.
The rest, of course, is history. Years after the events
described here, the program's legacy demonstrates our
work to sell UAVs at HQ was well worth the effort. Helios
soared this summer to world altitude records and reached
the thinnest edges of Earth's atmosphere. There is even
talk now that someday a craft based on this design is
going to be used to study the atmosphere on Mars. By
then, I expect, no one will ever recall our early battles
to prove we had a winning project from the start.
- There are times when the role of the project leader
is simply to sell the project.
- Projects can, and do, succeed because of politics.
And they fail because of politics as well. Politics
does not have to be a dirty word. If it means working
closely and openly with customers and stakeholders,
it is an essential approach that requires continuous
dedication of time and attention.
- The most compelling sales pitch you can make is
not that you have something wonderful to sell. It
is 'I understand what you need.'
How do you work to discover what your customer wants and
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Baer-Riedhart is the Deputy for the Public Affairs,
Commercialization and Education (PACE) Office at
the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. Before that
she was the Program Manager for the ERAST Program,
in charge of technology flight-testing for Unpiloted
Aerial Vehicles. She has worked her entire career
at Dryden, starting out in propulsion engineering
on the first computer-controlled jet engine for
the F-111 project.