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How NASA keeps innovating

A static rocket display is seen outside the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center on Saturday July 12, 2014 in Accomack County, VA. . (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Rod Pyle, the author of Innovation the NASA Way, has led leadership trainings at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its top executives and has also trained leaders from Fortune 100 companies. Pyle spoke about NASA and fostering innovation with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What are some of the traits that make for successful innovators?

A. What I saw at NASA at large, and in looking at the history of the space race and the Apollo and early shuttle programs, was this sense of daring and boldness. Innovation comes with risk. In the public sector, you’ve got a lot of visibility and sometimes that’s a problem. Yet the people at NASA who are successful always take risks. They make bold decisions and they are very dedicated. Having a sense of passion seems to drive people to be able to come up with incredible ideas.

Q. What allows NASA to be an innovative organization?

A. NASA is more bureaucratic than it used to be and there is a thicker rulebook, but the momentum that carries them is still this incredible sense of mission. If you go to any NASA center and ask someone what program they are working on and how they feel about it, nine times out of 10 you are going to get this very excited civil servant who tells you all about where they are going, how they are getting there, what they hope to find when they get there and why it is important.

The best leaders in the organization are able to own that and let that transfer down to the people who work with them and for them. That includes being able to provide an environment in which innovation can really blossom.

Q. What have been some of the barriers to innovation at NASA?

A. Talk to ten different people at NASA and you would get ten different answers. I think a common frustration is having a program announcement that then either gets canceled or underfunded. Sometimes this happens within next year’s budget appropriation, or often it's when we have a change in the White House.

For instance, the Constellation program was announced back in the early 2000s. They were going to build a new rocket, a new command module and a new lunar landing ship. It was never fully funded because a lot of people — outside of NASA primarily— were pulling in different directions. Then in 2009, they commissioned a report that said, “If you don’t put more money into this, it’s never going to happen because you are just going to keep tinkering with it.” So instead of funding it properly, they cut it.

Q. What can other federal agencies learn from NASA about managing innovation?

A. I get asked that a lot: “That’s great for NASA, but how do I make it work for me?” First, it’s about having a sense of mission, a driving force with clearly defined goals. Then you can take the lid off and say, “Okay people, I know that we have practicalities to worry about, but for the next 48 hours or the next week, I want you to just think as far outside the box as you can. Nothing is too outrageous. Don’t be afraid to hold your hand up, and by the way, negativity is not helpful. At some point, we will come and steer this towards where it needs to go.”

You can always trim back the idea or bring in the budgetary constraints later, but you are never going to arrive at a truly great, innovative solution if you start off by thinking of the constraints. NASA is good at using teams and team processes, so although an innovation usually starts with a person or a couple of people, they are very good at working in a team while still giving the innovator a sense of ownership and a stake in the project.

Q. What can federal leaders do to make innovation a priority?

A. The key is to set up fertile ground, an environment where innovation can take place. Innovation is a creative act. It is a moment of inspiration, fueled by imagination, that results in an idea that you then put into process to create change. It is not something where you can say, “Think! Create! Have a great idea!”

That is the biggest challenge within government — because if you set something like that up and it doesn’t produce results in the time period that is expected, you can begin having problems and criticisms. But there is just no other way. There needs to be a willingness to have bold moments, whether it’s the idea itself or the boldness of just saying, “Here is a challenge we need to solve, and we don’t know how to do it right now, and we have to figure out how to do it.” That’s what having a sense of mission is all about.

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, reflects on the difficulty of letting go of one of NASA’s core missions and many of its loyal employees. He speaks to On Leadership editor Lillian Cunningham for this installment of our “Micro Management Stories” video series. (Video: Sandi Moynihan/Lillian Cunningham and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

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