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The Role of Dissent in Driving Project Success

Virtual Project Management Challenge moderator Ramien Pierre (left) talks with presenters Peter Spidaliere, Mission Systems Engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center (center), and Nigel Packham, Manager of the Flight Safety Office at Johnson Space Center (right), about the critical role that dissenting opinion plays in reducing program and project risk.

Photo Credit: NASA

During June’s Virtual Project Management (PM) Challenge, Dr. Nigel Packham and Peter Spidaliere discussed the value of the dissenting opinion in reducing program and project risk.

Many programs and projects value consensus. But what about the need for rigorous debate and unvarnished inputs in order to ensure the best decisions are made? At NASA, many teams encourage members to offer differing points of view, ensuring the program or project benefits from a diversity of thought. For the more extreme cases, the agency offers a formal dissenting opinion process that allows individuals to voice critical concerns as needed.

This formal process was explored in the Virtual PM Challenge Considering It All for Project Success: Dissenting Opinions at NASA. Packham, Manager of the Flight Safety Office at Johnson Space Center (JSC), and Spidaliere, Mission Systems Engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), discussed their experiences with the dissenting opinion process and considered how program and project managers might reduce risk by actively encouraging the expression of dissenting opinions among their team members. The Virtual PM Challenge is now available to view online.

APPEL News had the opportunity to speak with Packham and Spidaliere after the event to learn more about the facts and misconceptions regarding the dissenting opinion process at NASA.

APPEL News: Nigel, you discussed the role of the dissenting opinion at NASA in detail during the Virtual PM Challenge. If viewers could take away just one thing from your presentation, what would you want that to be?

Nigel Packham: I think the most important aspect of the dissenting opinion process is that it exists at all. And that people use it. One thing I’ve found, ever since I was originally asked to do this presentation for the administrator, is that it’s not a very well understood process. Even its existence is not well advertised.

One of the questions we were asked during the Virtual PM Challenge was from an employee at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Her title is “Differing Views Program Manager.” So they actually have a program, and a manager of that program, who handles the equivalent of what is a dissenting opinion, which I think is great. Do I think it could function within this agency? Probably not, because we exist in 10 different centers, with multiple projects and programs, some manned, some not. But certainly I was impressed by the fact that the NRC, which is a little different than NASA in that it has a regulatory function, has an organization set up to address dissenting opinion. The fact that they have such an office appears to me to place a level of importance on differences of opinion that isn’t as widely held at our agency.

APPEL News: Pete, you’ve been on the other side of the table: during the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, you submitted a formal dissenting opinion. Yet you and Craig Tooley, the project manager—who had a different opinion—continued to work effectively together and even supported each other during the process. What would you say was the key to that cooperative atmosphere?

Peter Spidaliere: The thing I stressed during the Virtual PM Challenge was the importance of remaining congenial. Another way of putting it is nobody’s heart was in the wrong place. We were each doing what we thought was in the best interest of the project.

APPEL News: What’s the biggest misconception about dissenting opinion at NASA that you would like to see corrected?

Packham: The misconception is that it’s a very simple and quick process. As I said in the Virtual PM Challenge, it takes too long. I’ve been involved in two big dissenting opinion processes, as a facilitator for the dissenter; each took between four and seven months. This process, this time frame, does not work well in the context of, say, the International Space Station Program, where you have to make split-second decisions—or at least decisions within an hour or so. That’s why the dissenting opinion process is set up as a sequential process. In other words, we take it to one level of technical authority, then the next level, and then the next level if the dissenter feels that he or she hasn’t been heard at that lower level.

I wish the process could be quicker—like a couple of days or weeks—but the people involved range from center directors to chief officers at Headquarters to the administrator, so getting on their schedules for a one-on-one meeting is tough. The logistics of it are also challenging: people have different schedules and live in different places. You could use video conferencing, but if you’re talking about complex issues like this, it’s best to be in the same room. Meanwhile, the program manager’s decision is on hold to a degree until the dissenting opinion has been resolved—unless he or she accepts the risk of moving forward before the resolution. One thing that the dissenting opinion process documentation very clearly states is that the program manager is allowed to proceed at risk. In other words, they can continue forward with assuming that their decision is going to hold—with the risk that people might turn around and say, “Sorry, but I don’t believe you’re right.” And that means that they’ve wasted a lot of time and effort.

Spidaliere: People think the dissenting opinion is outside of the norm, but I would remind them that it’s in everything we do in aerospace design. Thoughtful argumentation, polite argumentation, or discussion to find the best or correct solution is part of what we do. So the formal dissenting opinion is an extension of this, especially as I’ve seen it done at Goddard.

APPEL News: Nigel, would you say the dissenting opinion process at NASA is linked to the way that the agency manages risk? If so, how?

Packham: My specialty is human spaceflight. In that environment, where lives are at risk, I think risk identification and the management of that risk is well understood and is totally in the forefront of everybody’s mind when we decide whether or not to launch a crew into low Earth orbit or beyond.

One thing to note, though, is that there is no such thing as zero risk. Human spaceflight always incurs risk. After you’ve managed to reduce that risk as much as you can, you always will have residual risk. So the question I’m often asked is, “Is it safe?” The answer to that is, “That’s not the right question to ask.” When you put a human being on the top of a launch vehicle that has seven million pounds of thrust, multiple millions of gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which are by their very nature expected to explode in a controlled fashion—that is not safe. The better question is, “Is it safe enough?” And that extends to the responsibility we all have. Dissenting opinion is not an option that one can invoke; it is everyone’s responsibility. If someone truly believes that there is too much risk involved in a decision that a program manager or someone else makes, then it is their responsibility—if they really believe that they have a good technical rationale to show why it’s not the right decision—to say, “I’m sorry, but that is not the right decision, and here’s why.”

APPEL News: During your presentation, you also said program managers or other managers should actively solicit dissenting opinions. Can you tell us more about that?

Packham: I think it is very important, when looking at fundamental design decisions, for program managers and those in management levels to maintain vigilance by soliciting dissenting opinions. At design reviews, for example, or major program decisions.

During the presentation, I mentioned Terry Wilcutt as an example. Terry is the Chief of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. At every Safety and Mission Success review, which takes place before every human spaceflight mission, he starts off the meeting by making certain that everyone understands that he expects them to raise concerns if they don’t hear those concerns voiced during the meeting. He tells them, “This is your opportunity to let me know about things that I need to be concerned about.” And he does that at the end of the meeting, too, asking, “Have we addressed every concern from everybody in this room?” That’s the exact way it should be done.

Now, program managers sometimes don’t like soliciting dissenting opinions, although they know they’re out there, because then they have to address them. And I’m not demeaning program managers at all. But obviously, a dissenting opinion takes time and effort, and potentially dollars, to address. As a program manager, apart from looking at crew safety, your mind is on the schedule, on cost, on all the things for which the program manager is responsible. Decisions that they make will affect the likelihood of that crew coming home or not. In fact, the good program managers will understand when the acceptance of risk is beyond their level, when it needs more levels of eyes—those levels being upper management—to look at the whole thing and say, “Yes, we accept the risk.”

The same risk acceptance is evident for unmanned missions as well. It may not be people’s lives on the line, but it may be very high-risk payloads, and high-value payloads. During the Virtual PM Challenge, Pete gave the example of the 100 instruments on four different spacecraft for the MMS payload. Each one of those instruments has a principal investigator behind it and they certainly have a vested interest in the success of that mission. Because don’t forget: we’re not just about safety, we’re also about mission assurance.

APPEL News: Some managers may be uncomfortable identifying risks, even when leading complex programs or projects. This may impact their willingness to support the expression of dissenting opinion. How can NASA address this?

Packham: Addressing that issue requires the highest level of management stating their expectation for their decision makers to embrace dissenting opinions.

Spidaliere: Within my experience at Goddard, managers don’t limit dissenting opinions. Almost by definition, they cannot control dissenting opinions. If they do, that means the dissenter is not really doing his job, or his management isn’t.

I don’t agree NASA managers play down risks because it may appear that they cannot do their jobs. Rather, they may play down risks for two other reasons. First, for new proposals or concepts, they may fear that because the agency is so risk averse, a new proposal or concept might be rejected if it flirts with risk. Second, in the case of existing missions, they may fear receiving unwanted, unhelpful, or inexpert support from Headquarters.

APPEL News: Pete, during your presentation you talked about the role of culture in making people feel comfortable about voicing a dissenting opinion. Do you have any advice for a NASA center that wants to create such a culture?

Spidaliere: Maybe two things. First, I would actually suggest that they come to Goddard and see how we deal with dissenting opinion when it occurs. When the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigating Board] Report came out, that was when the formal dissenting opinion process was established. But it had existed for a couple of generations at Goddard, almost from the beginning, according to the old timers—it was an established part of the Goddard culture when I got here in 1989.

I don’t know how you can change a culture that doesn’t see the value of dissent. I guess what I’d say is: It is a big rock to push when dissenting opinion has to be forced on a center. But I think if you actively encourage it, with no reprisal and with awarding people and praising them for raising dissenting opinions, that would go a long way. But I think we’re talking about a generational process. Literally. It would take 10 or 20 years.

APPEL News: And you said that the highest award at Goddard…

Spidaliere: “It is for dissent: the Thomas J. Budney Award.”

APPEL News: That certainly suggests the center sees value in dissenting opinions. If a different organization wanted to create, or improve, their own dissenting opinion process, what advice would you give them, Nigel?

Packham: The process itself needs to be nailed down before you implement it. If you can actually nail it down and say, “Here’s step A. And for this step, here’s what person X has to do and here’s what person Y has to do, that’s their responsibility at this point,” then it’s a logic diagram. And/or/if. If the answer’s “yes,” you proceed this way; if the answer’s “no,” you go that way. On paper it may look simple, but in practice it’s very complicated. So if you can get the basic flow diagram down, and agreement from everyone involved, that goes a long way to streamlining the process overall.

What I’ve discovered over the past year and a half or so is that the process at NASA is poorly understood, is not consistently implemented, and there are people out there that truly believe they have a better process. And I look at them very strangely when they say that because the process is defined by an agency document. It doesn’t leave any room for tailoring or for someone to come up with their own process. So someone may say, “We’ve got a better process than that”—well, they may have, but it doesn’t respond to agency requirements. And I’m not the legal person that says, “You shall do this because the agency says you shall.” But when somebody tells me, “We’ve got a better way of doing this,” and I ask them how different it is from the agency requirement, they can’t answer that question because a lot of them don’t even know there is an agency-wide process.

APPEL News: So raising awareness of the formal dissenting opinion process is crucial?

Packham: Correct. One of the questions the person from the NRC asked was, “How widely known is the dissenting opinion process amongst the agency employees?” That’s a very telling question, and I think the answer is: that information is pretty poorly disseminated across the agency. Maybe that’s something we need to start asking people: Are you aware that the dissenting opinion process exists? If so, have you ever been exposed to one? And if so, how do you think the process went? Those survey questions have not been asked, and maybe that’s something we need to start asking people.

APPEL News: What advice might you give someone at NASA who believes he or she has a dissenting opinion that should be raised?

Spidaliere: As I said earlier, keep thing congenial. For someone more junior, a GS 9 or 11 or something like that, I would advise them to start by talking with their engineering coworkers or their lead for the subsystem or system that they’re working. When you go to your line management, it kind of sets up an “us vs them” situation. Better to start off with your coworkers at the project level and work it that way. And then slowly raise the level as required.

Packham: For anyone who is considering dissenting, my advice to them would be: Don’t wait. Have the discussion outside of the normal decision-making board or forum. Have the discussion first because it may well be that the other person can accommodate that dissent without having to get in front of the program manager. That person may say, “Oh, we hadn’t thought of that, good point, let’s go off and do that” without the program manager even being involved.

As for the program manager, anyone who doesn’t understand that there’s a dissenting opinion about to be brought forward is not a good program manager. The dissenting opinion is not something that will be dropped on them at a moment’s notice. It will have been discussed a lot before the program manager makes the decision [that sets off a formal dissenting opinion].

APPEL News: How do we know whether the dissenting opinion process at NASA is working well?

Spidaliere: I think the approach would be to interview project Engineering Technical Authorities (ETAs) to see if they feel that they can raise issues when they need to. To ask the entire agency would just result in another survey. Rather, I would focus only on the ETAs and ask them anonymously. I would make it an interview, not an on-line survey, so people make time to do it.

APPEL News: If people want to find out more about the process, where should they go?

Packham: I’d love to say that we have a “Differing Views Program Manager,” as the NRC does, but we don’t. So I would say that I am the person that can best answer questions about the dissenting opinion process. NASA Procedural Requirement (NPR) 7120.5E states what a dissenting process is, but it doesn’t discuss the process or how to proceed. There is a handbook that accompanies that particular NPR that covers many different things, including dissenting opinion and technical authority.

But is there one place that tells you where to go if you think you have a dissenting opinion and are wondering who to talk to? That’s a different question. There is a Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer (CSO) for every NASA program, and it sounds like there’s one for every project at places like Goddard, for example. Goddard has 34 CSOs. My office at Johnson has the majority of program-level CSOs, so I have about 10 people in my organization to cover those programs. If somebody has a question or a concern about whether they actually have a dissenting opinion or not, the CSOs are a very good resource to talk to. If they need to find out who the CSOs are, they just need to contact their Safety and Mission Assurance organization.

APPEL News: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add here that you wish you had said or clarified during the Virtual PM Challenge?

Spidaliere: One of the things I said, which I thought was correct, was that the decision in my case had been made at the center director level. But that wasn’t the case. That was the last I knew of, but it had actually gone to Headquarters in the Science Mission Directorate, where the Heliophysics Division director actually sided with me in a discussion he had with Craig Tooley, the MMS project manager. He decided he didn’t want to accept the risk of compressing the tests and overruled Craig’s decision. For whatever reason, I either didn’t hear that, or I heard it but was too busy and forgot. I was in the middle of environmental testing of four spacecraft so I had other things on my mind—and it had been settled in my favor. So without me realizing, it had actually gone to Headquarters and been resolved by the Science Mission Directorate deciding against the project management position.

Packham: I’ll come back to the word “substantive,” which came up during the Virtual PM Challenge as part of the official definition of a dissenting opinion as written in NPR 7120.5E. That word irks me greatly because I’m not sure I really understand the true definition of “substantive.” A substantial viewpoint or opinion, or a viewpoint or opinion that is defendable, might be a better definition of what I think a dissenting opinion is.

In other words, a dissenting opinion is not somebody coming and saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re wrong.” And that’s it. That is not a dissenting opinion by definition. A dissenting opinion has to have a true grounding in good technical rationale. You have to come to the program manager and say, “I believe the decision that you just made is an incorrect one. Here’s the technical reason why I believe it’s incorrect, and here are a couple of options that I think you should look at before you commit to that path. If you decide not to look at these options, then I will have no choice but to register an official dissenting opinion and initiate that process. Can we discuss this?” The fact is, you have the discussions about the decision and alternate paths before you get to the formal point of registering a dissenting opinion.

At this point, the program manager might say, “Thank you for your opinion. It looks like you’ve got an interesting thought there, so I’m not going to make my final decision now. Let’s look at it again. I’ll come back to you in two weeks and tell you what my decision is.” Two weeks later, the program manager could come back and say, “I’ve looked at the options you proposed. They looked good at first glance, but we’ve looked at it in a more detailed review, and here are the reasons why those options won’t work.” At that point, the dissenter may say, “Thank you for listening, but I still feel like I would like a higher level of management to look at this.”

That step should never be taken as a threat. It’s an opportunity for that program manager. And remember, the program manager and the dissenter have the same goal: to reach the best decision for the program. They are really on the same side. If a program manager sees the dissenting opinion that has been raised as a threat, that’s not a good way of doing business.

For the dissenter, you have to have a good technical basis for bringing up a dissenting opinion. You must have a reason for believing the other person is making a wrong decision, and you can suggest other options. Without those elements, it’s not a true dissenting opinion.

The Virtual PM Challenge Considering It All for Project Success: Dissenting Opinions at NASA can now be viewed online here. The presentation offers unique insight into the dissenting opinion process at NASA, considering it from the point of view of a dissenter as well as a facilitator.

To receive email notifications about upcoming Virtual PM Challenge sessions and recorded session availability, please subscribe to the Virtual PM Challenge email list.


Dr. Packham is the Manager of the Flight Safety Office (FSO) in the JSC Safety and Mission Assurance (S&MA) Directorate, which has responsibility for implementation of the Safety Technical Authority for all human spaceflight programs. Dr. Packham is also Associate Director, Technical, for the S&MA Directorate and the Deputy Technical Lead for Life Support Systems for the NASA Engineering and Safety Center. In addition, he was the Project Manager for the effort that culminated in the release of the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report.

Prior to these appointments, Dr. Packham served as the Chief of the Environmental Factors Branch of the (then) Space Life Sciences Directorate, which had responsibility for the oversight of environmental quality (water, air, microbiological, radiation and acoustics) for all for all Human Spaceflight Programs. He started his career at NASA in the Engineering Directorate working on the Space Shuttle Program, ISS, and Advanced Life Support Systems. In this position, he also served as the commander of a four-person crew that spent 91 days inside a 6-meter diameter chamber to demonstrate the capabilities of advanced systems for air, water, and waste recovery for long-duration missions.

Mr. Spidaliere joined GSFC in 1989 as the Systems Engineer for the Flight Telerobotic Servicer. He later became the Systems Engineer for the First Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission and in 1994 became the Spacecraft Systems Engineer for Landsat 7. Mr. Spidaliere then transferred to JSC to serve as the Systems Engineering Manager for the International Space Station (ISS). In 1996, he became the Deputy Project Manager and the Mission Systems Engineer for the ISS Interim Control Module at the Naval Research Laboratory. Mr. Spidaliere returned to GSFC in 1997 to serve as the Mission Systems Engineer for the Earth Observing-1 Mission, later returning to JSC in 1999 to join the Space Shuttle Upgrades Program. In 2001 he became the JSC Chief Engineer and Systems Engineering Manager for the Orbital Space Plane Program. After the Shuttle Columbia disaster, he volunteered to lead the Shuttle Orbiter Thermal Protection System safety team. During this time, he developed an on-orbit infrared sensor technique to detect damage to the Orbiter’s wing leading edge. In 2005, he returned to GSFC one final time to support the Exploration Program at Headquarters. He then served as the Mission Systems Engineer for the Magnetospheric Multi-Scale Project from 2005 until its launch and commissioning in 2015. Mr. Spidaliere received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech in 1983. Prior to joining GSFC, he worked in industry and for the Navy in the robotics field.

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