ASK OCE — August 17, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 12
By Chris Scolese
Anyone who works at NASA knows that this is first and foremost a technical organization. We build, buy, and operate the most complex flight systems known to humankind. This requires a highly skilled workforce at every level, from the technicians on the ground to the most senior managers.
NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin has said publicly that technical skills are a “non-negotiable” requirement for top officials at the Agency. Clearly managerial talent is also necessary and important. There is a school of thought among some management theorists that management skills are portable; any manager can thrive in any organization if he or she possesses the right executive skills. This may work across certain industries, but there are several reasons that this model is not well-suited for NASA.
The sheer complexity of spaceflight programs and projects demands expertise all the way up the line. When conflicts arise that cannot be solved at a program or project level, senior management must have the ability to exercise leadership. Managers cannot make informed decisions if they do not understand problems in sufficient depth to weigh the data and analyses that are presented.
The timelines for our developments are also very long. By the time the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) makes its maiden voyage four to eight years from now, NASA will have an entirely different senior management team. The technology landscape will have changed, and the CEV will demand innovations that have yet to be invented. (As a point of reference for the pace of technological development, remember that Google was a new start-up company eight years ago.) There will be a new presidential administration. Congress will have made a series of appropriations. To account for all these variables, today’s decisions by NASA’s senior management about the CEV have to combine a clear sense of direction for the future with the flexibility to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances.
NASA also poses unique management challenges because we don’t build lots of anything; our job is usually to do things that haven’t been done before. The CEV is a good example again. In the last decade and a half, NASA hasn’t developed any new human transportation systems, and it’s been far longer since we developed systems to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit. Now we’re developing a new vehicle to carry humans to the moon. Management at NASA requires an understanding of the difficulties of running a large organization that builds one-of-a-kind or few-of-a-kind systems.
In short, management expertise cannot be independent of subject matter expertise at NASA. Strong leadership demands a strong grasp of the technical challenges associated with spaceflight developments.