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Red rover, red rover, let NASA come over! Print

(from Keep the Joint Running blog )

Management Speak: It looks like you’ve thought of everything.
I have no ownership in this idea, and no reason to care about it. Good thing you won’t need my help.
-This week’s anonymous contributor might not have thought of everything, but he did think of an excellent translation.

BIG/GAS stands for "Business Is Great/Government and Academics are Stupid."

It’s a popular proposition among the shouting classes, but NASA — specifically Spirit and Opportunity — have, over the past six years, driven a few more nails in its coffin. While unpopular in some circles the two Mars rovers have, as of this writing, exceeded their planned mission lives by more than 2,500%.

Very few business successes play in that league.

Panacea lovers would undoubtedly recommend you learn everything you can about how NASA managed this mission and apply every lesson to your own projects. The panacea lovers would be wrong. It isn’t often you’ll find yourself building technology that will be deployed only twice, both times in remote locations where repairs aren’t a possibility. So most of the techniques NASA used to ensure near-perfect quality in custom design and construction would be gross overkill in typical business situations.

One idea you can use, and it’s a strangely controversial: Everyone involved in a project, and especially the person running a project, has to personally care about and take responsibility for its eventual success.

To explain why this is controversial:

Point #1: Projects have a beginning and an end, as opposed to Operations (in the business-generic sense), which are ongoing.

Point #2: Success means the planned business changes and benefits have actually shown up.

Point #3: By definition, Projects aren’t successful when they deliver their deliverables (and who decided to call them “deliverables,” dooming us to this sorry syntax anyway?). They’re successful when Operations puts their deliverables to use, improving how their part of the organization runs.

Conclusion: Project managers, more or less by definition, aren’t in a position to ensure success.

The controversy comes from confusing taking responsibility for success - something internal and personal — with being held accountable for it.

The Mars rover missions were … are … spectacular successes. Beyond their showcase metric of having exceeded their planned life by so much is a more important one: They have extended our knowledge of planetary science enormously more than was ever hoped for in the original plan.

Here’s what matters to you: All of the project teams whose work came together to design, build, and launch Spirit and Opportunity, not to mention everything needed here on Earth to direct the ongoing mission, finished their work and disbanded before any new scientific knowledge showed up.

Does anyone reading this column think the project teams and project managers limited themselves to creating deliverables that met specifications?

Without any inside knowledge I’ll say with confidence that this isn’t even a remote possibility. If everyone involved had thought about their responsibilities as ending with deliverables that met specifications then Spirit and Opportunity would have ground to a halt roughly 120 days after landing. (I figure 120 days because the spec said 90 days and every good engineer knows to add a 50% safety margin.)

It simply can’t be. I would bet every project manager and most project staff cared, and still care deeply and personally about exploring other planets. And took personal responsibility for overall mission success, not just their assignments.

The same is true of the Cassini team. Cassini finished its original four-year mission to Saturn in 2008 and shows no signs of slowing down.

Cassini and the Mars Rovers (sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?) provide strong evidence that fully engaging your employees in your success is a business proposition, not a moral imperative. NASA, of course, has it easy — for an engineer, what could possibly be cooler than participating in building spacecraft? All NASA has to do is avoid spitting on its employees and engagement is almost inevitable.

When you’re part of a more prosaic enterprise, in contrast, employee engagement takes more than salivary restraint, although expectoration elimination is an excellent first step.

What it takes is this message, delivered by the organization’s leaders with sincerity and acted on consistently: “We don’t hold employees accountable. We don’t have to. Our employees take personal responsibility for our success. In return we share our success in tangible terms with the employees who make it possible.”

Want evidence? Inc. magazine recently featured a small chain of pizza parlors that demonstrate this point well ("Lessons From a Blue-Collar Millionaire ," 2/1/2010).

It proves (and if you didn’t see this coming I’m disappointed in you) that employee engagement doesn’t have to be rocket science.

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