NASA is freakin’ awesome (why science geeks are leading the way for engagement)

The other night, after being woken up by a particularly loud dog turning over in her crate, the TV was turned on and I ended up watching an hour long program on NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars.  It was awesome, and if you are not in awe of the things that human beings can do when focused on a common cause, shame on you.  I’ve been a space nerd from a very early age.  The Right Stuff is still one of my favorite movies. I really wanted to be an astrophysicist (then I hit ‘Intro to Complex Variables’.  Oof.) and I watch documentaries all the time (hence the Science Channel on at 3:00am).  I love that stuff.

As I lay there, not sleeping like I should have been, I was struck by how geeked (shout out to Steve Browne!) everyone was about the work they were doing.  And I couldn’t help think that any corporation would be lucky to have such an engaged workforce, and how any workforce would love to be that excited about going to work every day.  The NASA geeks obviously love that stuff, too.

I know NASA has come under fire in the past for their culture of cover up that resulted in deaths (Challenger, Columbia) and other leadership blunders.  I’ll address that side of the culture in the future. But for those people working on the Curiosity mission, the culture gave them exactly what they needed in order to love their jobs AND be successful.curiosity

What is it that got these NASA people so jazzed (other than the obvious fact that they are working on AWESOME SPACE STUFF)?  Here are a few things that I think contribute to the high level of NASA employee engagement that corporations can learn from:

  • People get to apply their skills and interests towards really cool work: Engagement surveys keep telling us that people want to be able to put their strengths to work on interesting projects.  You’ve probably said once or twice in your career, “I just want to make a difference.”  Well, these people are doing that – they get to use all their training and years of gazing up at the stars to help explore a distant planet.
  • Everyone is working toward the same massively difficult, but inspiring, goal: NASA is all about throwing down the gauntlet.  It started with Kennedy’s assertion that we would get to the moon by the end of the decade in the ’60s, to Apollo 13’s shifted mission to bring the astronauts home, to landing the most ambitious rover safely on Mars to conduct science experiments.  This singular focus drives all decisions and actions, keeping the teams focused on the common target.
  • Everyone’s role is well-defined: As you can imagine, a project like Curiosity has a LOT of different teams working on specific aspects of the mission.  There’s the experiment team, the landing team, the communications team, the power team, the SAM (sample analysis) team, etc.  Each person knows what their specific goals are, what the expectations are, the timeline required, and the potential impact of failure.
  • Everyone understands how their role contributes to the overall mission: I didn’t hear anyone say, “I don’t know why I do what I do – I just take orders.”  These are people who are driven to succeed because they know the rest of the mission is relying on their success.  They are given the big picture to provide context and truly believe they are a part of something greater than themselves.
  • They prepared…and prepared…and prepared…and were ready for anything: The level of testing and simulations the teams underwent before launch, during the journey to Mars, and right before landing meant the team felt they were able to handle any contingency.  Leadership understood the importance of gelling as a team, practicing skills until mastery, and throwing in trouble scenarios so the team could learn how to handle them in a low risk environment.  This level of practice lent skills and cohesion that resulted in a successful rover landing…even though the method used to land the rover had never been used before.
  • The work captures the hearts as well as the minds: One of the project’s scientists told the story of when he was a kid and the first Voyager photos from Mars were published in the ’70s.  He said, “That’s the day I became a planetary scientist.”  He basically is working on the project he dreamed about when he was little. The ability to emotionally connect with one’s  work is powerful. Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk and book Start With Why discusses the need to understand who you are as a company and then let all things flowing from there.  The scientists working on Curiosity knew why they were there, and the long hours and stress were truly a labor of love.
  • They celebrate their wins: Just watch the reaction of the team once Curiosity safely touched down on the surface of Mars.

True, most of us will never get a chance to work on a project like landing a rover on another planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to reach it.  But when you think about it, none of the things that make those NASA geeks so excited are really out of reach for companies.  It’s about letting your people use their strengths to move the company forward on ambitious goals that everyone understands and connects to.  Each person knows what their role is and why it’s important.  They can be emotionally committed to the work.  And everyone can celebrate their wins and learn from their mistakes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

2 thoughts on “NASA is freakin’ awesome (why science geeks are leading the way for engagement)

  1. While yes working for NASA would be a great experience, there are a number of factors that might make it the atypical work environment. One being that the organization isn’t profit driven. While a number of companies let employees devote time to new and innovative projects, NASA essentially does that as its basis of operation. Of course there are going to be exceptions to the rule and edge cases you can bring up to prove me wrong, but in general most companies can’t afford to run like NASA. But regardless, I still like rocket ships.

    1. Yes, NASA has a unique mission. I was hoping to share some ideas on how “normal” companies can use similar approaches – clearly communicated goals, line of sight to value, tapping into the heart and minds of employees. We don’t all get to work for NASA (dang it), but hopefully leaders can adopt some of the techniques that make it a cool place to work.

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