How Does Nasa Build Teams?

By Nettie Reynolds

For this issue of Cincom Expert Access, we caught up with Dr. Charles Pellerin, who is also the former Director of Astrophysics NASA and author of “How NASA Builds Teams.” Dr. Pellerin talks about the Hubble Space Telescope, a flawed mirror, what storylines mean and shares his insight on the future of the space program.  

How_NASA_Builds_Teams_CoverNettie: Can you tell us about your book and how you came to understand how  the social issues affect leadership decisions and project failure?

Dr. Pellerin: When the Hubble Failure Review Board named a “leadership failure” as the root cause of the flawed mirror, I became extremely curious about social factors and their effect on teams.  How did something we never even discussed trump the work of many of the best technical minds in the world? After I assembled the space mission to fix the telescope, I began to research space failures.

I began my inquiry as a Professor in the University of Colorado’s Business School in 1993, reading the reports and books about space accidents. To my surprise, every failure had a social shortfall as the root cause!

Why focus on space accidents? First, when astronauts (and teachers) die in space accidents, the cost of the investigation is irrelevant. Superficial investigations find the technical mistake and move on. Space-accident investigations run for months with dozens of experts engaged. Second, and obviously, I understand the technical issues and know many of the people these reports reference.

In 1995, I began experimenting with commercial workshops, coaching and assessments to manage team social contexts. Experimentation came naturally, as I have a PhD in experimental physics. Our assessments produce quantitative data that we analyzed every-which-way to see what works and what does not.

In 2003, NASA awarded us a large contract to apply our processes to NASA teams. Dr. Ed Hoffman, Director of NASA’s “Academy for Program/Project and Engineering Leadership” sponsors our NASA work. We now have data from over 1,000 project, engineering and management teams. About two years ago, my colleague, Skip Borst, showed me a graph he just completed that amazed me. Skip had graphed the performance enhancement of the 198 NASA teams with multiple assessments. The lowest 60% of the teams improved performance an average of 5% per 15-minute “Team Development Assessment” cycle! Moreover, on average, every team advanced no matter where they started.

That is what spurred me to write “How NASA Builds Teams.”

Nettie: How do you define social issues, and how did this ultimately impact your work as Director of Astrophysics at NASA for your almost decade-long tenure?

Dr. Pellerin: The technical world has a well-defined and broadly understood vocabulary. I can go anywhere in the world and speak about entropy, critical mass and first derivative and be completely understood. This is not true in the social world. There is no universally accepted terminology for social matters. In fact, teams often comment following our workshops, “Perhaps the most valuable take-away is a common language to talk about social matters.”

As I studied failure reports, I noticed variation in descriptions of the causes. A “leadership failure” caused the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror flaw. “Normalization of deviance,” caused Challenger’s explosion. A flawed “culture” caused Columbia’s disintegration. I chose the term “team social context” because context powerfully drives behaviors, and the terminology has sufficient breadth to include all descriptions.

I used my intuitive understanding of “4-D” when I was leading my Hubble team through the horrible aftermath of the discovery of the flaw and in assembling the space Servicing Mission.  My insights were, however, nothing approaching the effectiveness of current “4-D” methodology.

Nettie: Can you briefly tell us about the flawed mirror found after launching the Hubble and how the communications/social issues contributed to this?

Dr. Pellerin: In 1990, in my eighth year as NASA’s Director, Astrophysics, we launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. I worried about this mission because of the daunting pointing requirement. The telescope needed to point with the precision of a laser on a 25-cent piece at 200 miles. If we missed this specification by a factor of 10, the telescope would be useless. During on-orbit testing, we found to our dismay that all the difficult systems worked fine, but the mirror had the wrong shape! This rendered the telescope useless for its most important research, cosmology.

NASA appointed me liaison to the Hubble Failure Review Board because the mirror manufacturing was in the late 70’s, and I became Director in 1983. Therefore, they reasoned, I had nothing to do with the flawed mirror. (As you will soon see, that assumption was incorrect.) The Board worked for months trying to figure out what happened. One morning, one of the Board’s optical experts said, “I have an idea. Last night I calculated that an error in spacing the “null corrector by a centimeter would cause the error we are seeing.” This was an unbelievably large mistake for an optics house to make.

The original null corrector was in “bonded storage,” so we pulled out and measured it, confirming the source of the error. I thought, great, I could go back home and do my job again. The Board Chairman, Dr. Lew Allen, had other ideas and persisted in his inquiry. He found that there were numerous instances where the contractor dismissed hints of a problem with “fault tree analysis.” When he inquired as to why NASA never “ran these problems to ground,” he learned that the contractor (Perkin-Elmer) never told NASA of these occurrences. (We settled a lawsuit against the contractor for $25M.) He concluded that NASA failed in leading the program because we created an environment so hostile that the contractor only told us of problems they were sure were real and threatening. Moreover, I was the Hubble program Director. Ouch!

Fortunately, in the turbulent aftermath, neither NASA nor I connected me with the flaw, despite the Board’s finding. I proceeded to assemble the mission that repaired the telescope on orbit, exceeding the original performance specifications by 50%. NASA awarded me a second Outstanding Leadership Medal when the servicing mission succeeded. (It is a wonderful world when you can break something, and then receive a medal for fixing it.)

Nettie:  Your book, “How NASA Builds Teams,” describes the concept of “storylines.” Can you talk about how that works with leadership and how what stories we carry with us affect an organization?

Dr. Pellerin: Our most powerful means of influence is what we say, to ourselves (self-talk) and to others. Storylines are things we say that seem like the truth, but are not because they are arguable. Since Storylines are not actual truth, we are free to change them. We teach people to color their storylines as “red” when they distract people from outcomes they want, and “green” when they improve focus on actions that take us to desired outcomes. Here is a “red” storyline: My boss gives me too much work. It is “red” because it is a victim storyline, “It is useless, and there is nothing I can do. The “green” replacement storyline is: “I am responsible for managing my workload. I will communicate with my boss in a way that matches my workload to my capacity.” (We have a communication methodology, “4-D Communication” for this conversation.”)

Storylines can take entire industries to success or ruin. Can you guess which US industry ran this storyline? “Improving quality is too expensive.” They only considered shifting their storyline to “Improving quality is the best way to lower cost,” copying their main competitor, when they lost 65% of market share to a foreign country. It was the auto industry, of course.

Nettie:  How did these stories affect the Hubble error? And how do stories contribute to decisions we make on teams and projects?

Dr. Pellerin: The NASA contract managers ran a storyline that “the best way to get performance from our contractors is to beat them up.” This is ill-conceived. People perform complex tasks more efficiently when their contributions are authentically appreciated and they enjoy their work. This kind of storyline caused “the biggest screw-up in the history of science.” When we encounter broken government-contractor interfaces, we initiate the team recovery with authentic appreciation exercises. You can download the PowerPoint slide we use (free) at NASAteambuilding.com.

Red storylines cause decisions that are detrimental to success, and green ones bring success. With a little training, people can “color” their storylines and make choices. I spent my first eight or so years with about 50% of my time consulting for aerospace companies and 50% experimenting with the 4-D System. My consulting clients took the 4-D workshop and I observed them afterward. As I walked through their buildings, I loved hearing people on a telecon ask, “If we ran that storyline, what outcome would we realize?” All saw immediately that the storyline was red and replaced it with a green one. (Do not tell anyone, but this is cognitive psychology, simplified.)

Nettie:  What do you think are three common misconceptions about leadership and project management that organizations have?

Dr. Pellerin:

  1. That you can safely ignore team social context, because you ignore this at great peril as in the examples of space accidents.
  2. That there is no way to measure and manage team social contexts, when our assessments measure team social context by measuring eight behaviors against defined standards.
  3. That managing team social context is expensive and only affordable by big organizations like NASA. This is not true. Developing individuals by managing team contexts is highly efficient. We offer wholesale assessments to 4-D Network Members (see NASAteambuilding.com) and routinely waive all fees for academia and organizations that cannot afford to pay.

Nettie: Can you describe the 4-D system briefly and how it can be used as a tool to analyze team and individual performance?

Dr. Pellerin: The 4-D System is a Cartesian coordinate system based on the work Carl Jung  did in 1905. The 4-D organizing system has two essential functions:

  1. It analyzes complex team and leadership characteristics into simple, manageable components; and
  2. It aligns all 4-D processes (assessments, workshops, consulting and coaching) around the fundamental four dimensions.

It is at the heart of why our processes are so powerful—repeating the same theme everywhere.

Nettie: What is one of your success stories using the 4-D System described in your book, and what types of organizations have you worked with?

Dr. Pellerin: Actually, I have two favorites:

  1. Our processes took a contractor’s fee pool from 67% to 96% in a $1B+ contract (HNBT page xix). This change was rapid and profound. Moreover, the contractors’ top management credited us with the change; and
  2. The STEREO project (HNBT page 54), where the government and contractor team monotonically improved in near lockstep.  The project leadership reported high correlation of our social context measurements with both team performance and customer perceptions. Perhaps this is a favorite because it was a dramatic early success for us, when we were not as confident about our effectiveness.

Nettie:  What do you think about the space industry now, as it exists? Are you hopeful for the future in regard to space exploration?

Dr. Pellerin: I have given this a bit of thought, as I was head of NASA strategy for a time. Here is the difficulty. Human flight is the heart and soul of the agency. It is also expensive, costing perhaps 10 to 100 times as much as unmanned programs. NASA has not had adequate funding for human space flight programs since Apollo. At this moment, political turmoil confuses civil space.  The Administration wants more NASA funding to go to “commercial” space programs with less NASA oversight. The Congress worries about losing jobs in their districts. While I remain hopeful for the longer run, it is not clear how the near-term will play out. Note: NASA spends 90% of its budget on contracted work.

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