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October 30, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 10


Innovation is critical to our continuing progress in space. Can it be learned?

At NASA we know that innovation goes hand in hand with our ability to succeed at increasingly complex missions. The success of Messenger’s recent Mercury fly-by is a dramatic reminder of how much we gain from seemingly incremental advances in knowledge and technology. The images we’ve seen thus far are evidence of the incredible progress since the Mariner 10 mission of the 1970s. These are the fruits of innovations large and small.

Technological innovation has become an expectation. Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, famously predicted in 1965 that the capacity of integrated circuits would double about every two years (Moore’s Law), and to date the semiconductor industry has not reached the physical limits that would end the streak.

A recent article by Babson College professors Tom Davenport and Bala Iyer in Harvard Business Review (“Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine,” April 2008) looked at how Google facilitates innovation and what kinds of organizations can benefit from emulating its approach. Through their study of Google, Davenport and Iyer identified six key attributes:

  • strategic patience
  • infrastructure built to support innovation
  • an ecosystem that enables architectural control
  • innovation built into job descriptions
  • a cultivated taste for failure and chaos
  • using data to vet inspiration

As a government organization, NASA is obviously very different than a publicly traded for-profit company, but some of the attributes of Google’s innovation engine are clearly relevant for us. Developing a manned mission to the moon requires strategic patience almost by definition. Through initiatives such as the Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP), we are building an infrastructure that supports innovation. And as an engineering organization that operates in the harsh environs of space, we have no choice but to rely on data to vet our inspirations.

Given the complexity of our missions, our projects constantly balance the need to maintain order with the need to adapt and innovate. Innovation typically thrives in organizations where there is openness of discussion, where adequate resources are available to pursue new pathways, and where knowledge moves easily. These preconditions of innovation represent a combination of formal decisions and processes (e.g., dedicated resources) and cultural norms and values (e.g., open communication). They also don’t fit neatly within the traditional project management “three-legged stool” of cost, schedule, and technical performance, which emphasizes controls. As a result, our project leaders need both the “hard” skills of project control as well as the adaptive skills that enable them to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.

The Academy seeks to enable innovation at NASA at the individual, team, and organization levels. Through our training curriculum, which includes courses such as Innovative Design Engineering Applications (IDEAs) and Seven Axioms of Good Engineering (SAGE), we ensure that individuals have the opportunity to build their personal skills and capabilities. We support project teams in the field by providing expert practitioners, coaches, and mentors. And through our forums and publications, we facilitate knowledge sharing across the agency, which helps creates a community of reflective practitioners who know what’s going on outside their own projects and where to find expertise when they need it.

Innovation is a critical ingredient of project success. It cannot be forced, but it can be cultivated. By fostering an environment in which continuous learning is the norm, we lay the groundwork for continuous discovery.

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