Back to Top

July 30, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 7


A new book offers an in-depth look at the team-building support sponsored by the Academy.

Since 2003, roughly two thousand NASA personnel and contractors have utilized the Academy’s teambuilding support services. In How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft Skills for Scientists, Engineers, and Project Teams, Charles Pellerin details the method he and his colleagues have developed for helping to improve the effective of teams at NASA.

The heart of How NASA Builds Teams deals with assessing and understanding healthy and unhealthy team contexts. Pellerin begins with the story of his tenure as director of astrophysics at NASA at the time of the Hubble Space Telescope launch. He recounts the pain of discovering shortly after launch that the telescope had a spherical aberration, and his astonishment at learning that the technical problem had a basis in the organizational cultures of NASA and its contractor. “It took me several years to realize that I was as culpable as the technician who spaced the null corrector incorrectly,” he writes. “I was in charge of NASA Astrophysics during the period when P-E (the contractor) withheld measurements that suggested we had a mirror problem. I was a full party to creating Hubble’s flawed social context.”

This communication breakdown led to what Pellerin calls a “red storyline” — the sum of the negative thoughts and expressions that team members shared. Healthy, or “green” storylines, on the other hand, are a sum of mostly positive shared views. Although story-lines seem true to the participants, he cautions that they should not be mistaken for truths because they are not not indisputable.

The key to improving a negative context, he writes, is cultivating eight behaviors that healthy teams practice: expressing authentic appreciation; addressing shared interests; appropriately including others; keeping your agreements; expressing reality-based optimism and being 100% committed; resisting blaming and complaining; and clarifying roles and responsibilities. The transformations necessary to cultivate these behaviors do not take place overnight, and typically require skilled facilitation through a combination of team workshops and individual coaching and mentoring.

This methodology relies on short online assessments that individuals fill out to determine the extent to which these behaviors are present. A picture of the team’s health emerges from the composite of individual assessments. After workshops or coaching, follow-up assessments measure progress on each of these eight behaviors.

The good news for people who find themselves operating on teams with red storylines is that with effort and commitment, project teams can overcome negative contexts. “You have several options to change your culture,” he writes.

Read more about How NASA Builds Teams.

About the Author

Share With Your Colleagues