NASA's 2003-2004 Leadership
Development Program (LDP) class recognized that effective
collaborations are often the key to achieving mission success. Personal
connections and common goals were key elements of their work together
and key findings of their collaboration benchmarking within the agency.
Finding our Way
NASA's first Leadership Development Program class was asked to define
and complete a project that would have a significant impact on the
agency. However, agreeing on a project took much more time than any of
us expected. Starting in the midst of the Integrated Financial
Management rollout, One-NASA implementation, and the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board (CAIB) report release, provided a lot of potential
topics to choose from. Brainstorming sessions led by our leadership
coaches yielded additional ideas.
Projects were proposed to address workforce mobility, aging
infrastructure, volunteerism, congressional communications, internal
NASA communications, new engineering management models, new NASA TV
programming, virtual teaming, and cultural issues between the centers.
We had one year to complete the assignment (while also completing two
leadership development rotational work assignments, participating in
six leadership trainings off site, attending briefings by most of the
agency leadership, and maintaining connections with our home centers)
and we were encouraged to tackle a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).
So how did a group of strangers come to a decision on our project, and
what were the results? It's helpful to take a step back and look at how
the first question was answered, as it is illustrative of several key
findings from our project.
The Melting Pot
At our first leadership training off site, which served as a
get-acquainted meeting, the class of 20 revealed our backgrounds and
passion for NASA to one another. We learned quickly that we were a
group with diverse backgrounds, in every sense of the word. We
represented nine of NASA's 10 centers, and our work experience included
scientists, research and facilities engineers, project managers,
procurement specialists, lawyers, and senior managers. Our origins
included small farms and big cities, numerous military and
second-generation NASA families, and several who spent part or all of
their childhood outside the U.S.
A subsequent training session had the class complete the Myers-Briggs
(MB) personality model. Of the 16 possible MB personality types, the
class had members that fell into 12 categories. This further
illustrated our diversity, but provoked a concern in some that the
class may have difficulty working as a cohesive team.
Several multi-hour discussions and much debate further revealed these
personality differences. Team members who registered in the
"traditionalist" category were poised and ready to hit the ground
running on a project proposed by a NASA Senior Manager. Others who fell
into the "visionary" category were deeply troubled about working on a
project that did not personally resonate with them. Decision-making
conflict also existed between those who preferred a "planned and
organized" approach and those who preferred a "flexible and
spontaneous" approach. Proposals were made to break the class into two
teams, each with a different project, but these ideas were rejected in
favor of focusing the energy of the entire team on one BHAG.
|The team established a set of operating
principles that addressed teamwork, communication, and accountability.
Gradually, one element, common to several of the proposed projects,
became a unifying factor for the class. That element was collaboration,
and more specifically, cross-center collaboration. The appeal for
studying collaboration was based on its increasing criticality in
support of the NASA mission, and its connection to increasing
cooperation and breaking down cultural barriers between the centers.
Using the positive energy of the group as fuel, the project moved
quickly into high gear. The class established a vision -- achieving
extraordinary mission success in the twenty-first century through
powerful collaborations -- and three top-level goals for the project:
This vision was documented in a five-page plan that was used as our
marching orders throughout this process. The team then established
rotational leadership assignments for the overall project and each of
the three goals, and established a set of operating principles that
addressed teamwork, communication, and accountability.
collaboration principles and best practices.
collaboration best practices into new and existing tools and programs.
- Align incentives
and structures to support effective collaboration.
Off To The Races
The first order of business was to establish those collaboration best
practices that were inherent in successful NASA programs and projects,
and to identify those traits that led to inter-center conflict or
otherwise inhibited progress. We decided to survey a number of NASA
collaborations to assess their opinions and experiences on a number of
characteristics that could influence their effectiveness.
At the suggestion of Chris Williams, the LDP Program Director, we hired
an independent Social Psychologist trained in the development,
administration, and data analysis of unbiased surveys to help in the
process. What a good idea that was! (I have to admit that I was hoping
to dig through and analyze the survey data as I had done in years past
as a flight test engineer at Dryden.) The consultant helped us adapt a
list of potential collaboration drivers, brainstormed by the class,
into a two-part survey: a questionnaire requiring a 1-to-7 scale answer
indicating the level of agreement to a particular statement, and an
interview to be given by members of the class. The questionnaire
allowed us to perform statistical analysis, and the interviews provided
opportunities for new ideas and unforeseen collaboration impediments to
Following interview training by our consultant, the class was off to
the races, canvassing the agency for the secrets behind good
collaboration by interacting with projects with a budget of a few
million dollars to massive billion-dollar programs. In each
collaboration we targeted survey data collection from a project
manager, a lead engineer/scientist, and a support worker on opposite
sides of the collaboration. To ensure that we were getting candid
responses, we established a process to assure people that their
interviews would remain confidential. In less than two months, we
interviewed Center Directors, Associate Administrators, and nearly 100
people from 16 different projects/programs across the agency,
generating a mountain of data in the process. Additionally, a series of
collaboration topics were evaluated by one of the Advanced Program
Although we spent several months selecting our project, the class was
making significant progress toward our goals. Sub-teams were formed to
concentrate on data analysis, training modules, integration of best
practices into existing program management processes, systems mapping,
and the latter used to identify the best leverage points for improving
collaborations. The group had clearly developed a sense of trust and
appreciation for each other's abilities over the time we spent together
as a group.
Over several weeks, the survey findings were boiled down to the most
important elements. These findings were used as the basis for
generating the collaboration best practices and a set of
recommendations for improving the environment for collaborations within
Program (LDP) class
(click image for closer view
The collaboration best practices (see table below) can be categorized
into three areas: human element, project framework, and management
involvement. The first area, human element, requires an investment in
people, relationships, and communications. The importance of
interpersonal communication cannot be overstated. The investment in
travel to facilitate face-to-face communication is an investment in the
success of the project. When asked what technology could improve
collaborations, many respondents answered, "Star Trek transporters" or
"faster aircraft" in order to get people face-to-face more often. The
pivotal point was that it is not about the technology, but rather that
establishing personal relationships is critical to establish trust and
a willingness to share knowledge -- which in turn overcomes rivalries
and differences in cultures and processes.
The second area, project framework, calls for an up-front investment in
establishing common and agreed-upon goals, processes, roles and
responsibilities, funding mechanisms, and establishing buy-in from all
parties -- before the project begins. Whether or not roles and
responsibilities are clearly defined was found to have a strong impact
on the success of collaboration.
A lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities most often resulted in
an inefficient use of resources, wasted time and energy, frustration,
distrust, and lowered morale. In our own collaborative effort, we found
our five-page mission statement to be our bible. Without it, progress
could not be tracked.
Cultural differences between centers, when not presented as center
rivalry, most often showed up as differences in processes. These
differences led to frustration and confusion, and in some cases,
mistrust and an unwillingness to communicate. There is also a need for
up-front planning to blend processes, rather than allowing one group's
processes to dominate. All of these problems can be overcome by
increased personal interaction. In this way, people can learn how other
centers or organizations operate, and they learn to understand each
The final area, management involvement, employs project leadership to
set and model the policies and standards, and it employs center senior
management to support, encourage, and occasionally intervene on behalf
of the collaboration. Project management must encourage respect for the
other partner's knowledge and capabilities. Allowing the development of
an "us" vs. "them" attitude is detrimental to collaboration. Getting
the teams face to face is once again an effective tool in this effort.
Seeing Eye to Eye
One manager from the survey relayed a story about a long-running
technical disagreement between centers that persisted for months.
Finally the teams were brought together, closed into a conference room,
and told to solve the problem. They did, less than a half-hour later.
We also found that true in our own working group; we would banter
thoughts through emails for several weeks, but resolve issues in hours
during our face-to-face meetings throughout the year. The survey also
indicated that difficult personalities can be highly disruptive to
collaborations, especially when ego-related. Project managers must
ensure that these people are not in positions that will lead to
frequent conflict with the collaboration partners. Establishing points
of contact between the partners to facilitate communication and serve
as problem solvers was mentioned as an effective means for maintaining
Senior managers' active involvement was found to be key and many were
commended in the survey for providing periodic reviews, helping solve
funding issues, and avoiding micromanagement. Survey respondents
desired a more active role of senior managers in the development of
collaboration agreements, setting of project expectations, and
management of inter-center conflicts. Additionally, there was a strong
desire for senior managers to make personal visits to the collaboration
staff and facilities -- a clear show of support.
|Highly effective collaborations are a key
building block to fully achieving the vision of One NASA and ultimately
succeeding in our important mission.
There does not seem to be a widespread use of metrics for management to
measure the progress or success of collaborative efforts. The most
common measures of project success, often reviewed monthly by center
management councils, are schedule, budget, and technical progress.
Managers rarely focus on the working relationships and processes, even
though it's the team that drives success or failure. We recommend that
metrics be developed to assess the health of collaborations. These
metrics should be reported as part of periodic project reviews so that
issues get addressed in a timely fashion and not be allowed to fester.
From the very beginning, the class recognized that reports-on-a-shelf
accomplish nothing. In order to make a real impact on the agency, the
collaboration best practices had to be integrated into NASA systems.
With that in mind, a multi-prong approach was initiated. Connections
were established with the NASA Academy of Program and Project
Leadership (APPL) and, at their suggestion, training materials were
generated to support existing leadership training courses. The Chief
Engineer's Office supported an effort to integrate collaboration
elements into the updated NASA Program Management Requirements and
The groundwork is also being set for a process to assess ongoing
collaborations and make the recommendations necessary for them to
achieve the highest standards. A class member also participated in the
addition of "teamwork" as a new performance plan element for leadership
positions. In order to illustrate the value of collaborations to the
agency's mission, a new NASA Peer Award is also being established. A
forum on collaboration also ran on NASA TV. Lastly, the LDP class is
fanning out to brief all NASA centers at senior leadership meetings and
town hall meetings on the best practices for successful collaborations.
Following Our Own Advice
Without knowing it a-priori, our LDP class followed many of the
important collaboration practices in the conduct of our study. First we
spent time getting to know each other, our backgrounds and
personalities. Second we worked, with some conflict, until we achieved
buy-in on a common vision and goals. Next we defined roles and
responsibilities and a set of operating principles that, in retrospect,
the team closely followed. Throughout the process, our commitment to
achieving the project goals for the betterment of the agency took
priority over any parochial concerns or personal agendas.
It is our hope and our vision that greater attention will be given to
the nurturing of collaborations across the agency. Highly effective
collaborations are a key building block to fully achieving the vision
of One NASA and ultimately succeeding in our important mission.
How does your project rate?
Partnership agreements must have
- Managers should recognize
that efficient and effective collaborations are the product of
- Face-to-face interactions,
especially as the collaboration forms, improve the formation of
relationships, establishment of trust, and issue resolution.
- Interpersonal interaction
substantially improves the ability to overcome inter-center conflicts.
Managers and Leaders should
- Roles and responsibilities.
- Shared vision, goals, and
- Flexibility to deal with
changes over time.
- Means for decision-making and
conflict resolution between the parties.
- Funding processes.
- Processes and procedures
should be agreed upon, understood, and documented.
- Points of contact should be
established to manage and resolve issues.
- Successful collaborations
require sufficient travel.
- Health of collaborations
should be measured, continually assessed, and discussed at management
Senior Managers should
- Encourage and model respect
and appreciation for each other's capabilities and knowledge.
- Recognize and reward team
members timely and peer driven most effective.
- Consider personality
- Ensure that difficult
personalities are not in position to disrupt collaboration.
- Have collaboration as a
performance plan element.
- Review projects, support
funding, and avoid micromanagement.
- Personally visit project
staff and facilities.
- Play an active role in the
development of collaboration agreements.
- Set project expectations.
- Manage inter-center
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| Brent Cobleigh recently
returned to Project Management at the Dryden Flight Research Center
after spending one year working on the Vehicle Systems and Centennial
Challenges Programs at NASA Headquarters as part of the Leadership
Development Program. Brent has 15 years experience working on
atmospheric flight research projects including X-29, X-31, F-16XL
Supersonic Laminar Flow, X-33, SR-71 LASRE, Autonomous Formation
Flight, and X-37. Prior to coming to Dryden, he received his Masters
Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the George Washington
University/NASA Langley Research Center's Joint Institute for the
Advancement of Flight Science.