Rod Pyle: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 15th, 2014 by bobmorris

Pyle, RodRod Pyle is author of multiple best-selling books on space exploration and innovation for major publishers including Smithsonian, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins, Prometheus/Random House, Sterling and Carlton. His most recent books are Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success for McGraw Hill (March 2014), which the Library Journal called “A gripping history of NASA… riveting… [the] writing is superb,” and, Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission and the People Who Made It Happen, published by Prometheus/Random House. It is listed as a “Top Ten Science and Tech Book for July” by The Guardian. Rod wrote and co-created The Apollo Leadership Experience for NASA and The Conference Board, which he taught at the Johnson Space Center for C-suite executives from companies like Michelin, Conoco-Philips, Ebay and The Federal Reserve. He continues to give keynotes and seminars on innovation and leadership.

His 2012 Destination Mars (Prometheus) was heralded as “The best recent overview of Mars missions” by the Washington Post, and was selected for Scientific American’s book of the month club. Rod has produced and directed numerous documentaries for The History Channel and Discovery Communications, including “Modern Marvels: Apollo 11” and “Mars: 100 Years of Discovery.” Rod is a space journalist, writing frequent articles and creating videos for Space.com, LiveScience, Huffington Post, NBCNews Online, the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the Art Center College of Design, and taught communication studies at the University of La Verne for ten years.

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Morris: Before discussing (in Part 2) Innovation the NASA Way, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Pyle: Honestly, the entire cadre of Gemini and Apollo astronauts. While my friends memorized states and collected cards for football and baseball players, I was studying NASA’s best. These guys were going to the moon, and I wanted to be with them! Alas, that was ultimately less likely even than my buddies joining the NFL…

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Pyle: There are so many, but Gene Kranz, the flight director for most of the Gemini and Apollo missions, was a major influence. His tough but fair approach to managing Mission Control teams, and his unashamedly “Gung Ho” attitude is inspiring. But I think the ultimate inspiration was the “Kranz Dictum,” as it came to be known; the speech he gave to his teams after the Apollo 1 fire. He was not even in charge the day of the fire, but it was Kranz who made the seminal speech, and it is posted all over Mission Control to this day. At its core is being “tough and competent,” and making Mission Control “perfect.” His people came as close to that demand as any organization can.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Pyle: Calculus! After encountering differential equations (with a less than stellar result), it occurred to me that astronomy at UCLA might not be my best option. My next choice was to tell science stories via visual and print media… and that’s turned out to be a lot of fun. Film and TV was my final undergrad major, and at Stanford I had a blast studying the more theoretical aspects of communication. Since then it’s been books, articles and TV work, and I hope to never stop.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Pyle: In the media business, excepting to some extent journalism, degrees don’t mean very much. In TV they mean nothing at all. So any progress I’ve made in those areas was fueled primarily by passion and tenacity. On the other hand, I did teach in various colleges for about twelve years and there, of course, the masters degree was everything. And I enjoyed teaching quite a lot.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Pyle: Success is as much about instincts, drive and dogged persistence as it is about brilliance or intellect. Determination to achieve a goal – often to the exclusion of anything else – seems to be critical. In NASA terms that equates to having the tenacity to sell a flight concept or a scientific goal, then pursue the accomplishment of that mission. We see it over and over again, how an individual voice makes all the difference in a project, science instrument or flight plan. And that’s great.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Pyle: There are a few classics that relate here… but Casablanca is one, in which personal passion and individual needs are secondary to duty and honor. Along the same lines, the original Star Trek TV show had some things to say about duty, persistence, honor and success, but always with a cost. I think that these apply to business success on a personal level, decisions that you live with long after the company has moved on to other concerns. Finally, Patton demonstrates the drive and brilliance often needed to succeed against great odds, and the personal costs that often come with it. As George C. Scott quoted “All glory is fleeting…”, a worthwhile sentiment to remember.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Pyle: Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Here is a man, Doc Ricketts, to whom business success, always elusive, was subsumed by, then buoyed by, the beauty in his personal existence. He maintained the former and grew the latter like a bloom. Together they made for a whole life, though marriage and the consummation of his inner desire for love remained somewhat elusive. But the longing within us often makes for a far greater motivator than achieving.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Pyle: Lao-tse was a smart man. I took a class at UCLA years ago in the Chinese mystics – this reminds me how insightful they could be. Human needs and behaviors have not changed much over time (anyone who has read Greek mythology knows that the core emotions discussed have not changed one iota). To the point: an inspired leader would do well to give his team a voice and a tangible stake in the process of building and succeeding. I address this in my innovation book and leadership seminars: give your team members a sense of ownership, a stake in the process of innovating and making that innovation into a success. I think it’s critical – in many cases, the passion of that person, or team, is the core force, the engine driving the process. Then, in a perfect world, the team shares the sense of accomplishment.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Pyle: I’ve always loved that one. Ask John Houbolt, a mid-level engineer in the Apollo program, who had to jump all the way to the top of NASA’s management chain to get his ideas about Lunar Orbit Rendezvous heard (it was the solution to the puzzle of how to land on the moon). Top minds like Wernher von Braun, who favored another method, finally saw the wisdom of LOR. This was certainly an example of one man forcing the organization to accept his excellent idea, despite much resistance at the top.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Pyle: Yes, or “That’s interesting…” or perhaps, as John Grotzinger, the Curiosity Mars rover’s chief scientist said when looking at some new and exciting data, “That’s one for the history books!” So often it is the surprises, the results that surpass our expectations, that foreshadow developments and discoveries far beyond what we had planned for. It’s a bit of scientific serendipity… the universe playing with us, deciding what to release at this moment, and providing discoveries beyond, or at least perpendicular to, our expectations. And since all great science is to a certain extent magical, that is often where the magic lies.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Pyle: Yes, GM built the Chevy Cobalt with great efficiency just before they went BK. And while millions of those Spartan autos served people for years, I think we would have all been served better had the car never existed (if you ever drove one for any distance, you know what I mean). This is a very basic and prosaic example of a great thinker’s ideas placed onto the road, but it’s certainly an expression of this loftier thought.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Pyle: Looking at this from a perspective of how NASA works and has worked in the past, I see a few people who emerge as something akin to a “Great Man”: James Webb, the politically canny and persuasive NASA administrator during the Apollo years, Wernher von Braun, the German rocket genius who drove the design of the Saturn V, and Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director and the engine behind Mission Control. Each of these people were instrumental in NASA’s early success. Each had a strong personality. Each was brilliant. They were NASA’s CEO’s in effect. And all of them knew that while they occupied key positions in America’s reach for the stars, they were part of a team, and without their team they would be unable to accomplish great things. They built their teams with care, selecting the very best of the day and driving them hard but with fairness. None could have done it alone, and they knew it. This in contrast to the Soviet space program in the 1960’s, where leadership was less diversified and concentrated in Sergei Korolev, the so-called “Chief Designer” who died suddenly in 1966. Without him firmly at the helm, the USSR’s effort to beat America to the moon, then fairly well advanced, was doomed.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Pyle: Innovation is by its basic nature an iterative process filled will false starts, errors and mistaken assumptions. At its best, these forces combine to evolve a positive and sometimes brilliant outcome. Providing the proper environment for the innovator/s – as much headroom or “blue sky” as you can afford, time and space to work effectively, protection from the naysayers, and a rich tool set all help to accomplish this goal – is critical. This is how developments such as the Curiosity Mars rover’s sky crane landing system, possibly the most unusual bit of space-mission design since the Apollo lunar module – came into being.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Pyle: In my opinion, it is the result of the very characteristics that got them to the C-suite. Intelligent, clever, aggressive. Once you embrace and excel through those traits, it can be challenging to delegate tasks and eventually entire projects without micromanaging. A fine entrepreneur can become an impediment to fully engaging other more specialized and very talented people. When an organization begins to mature, these people are the ones who need to be driving the bus. But it is so often difficult for the founder to know when to step back and let others step-up.

Gene Kranz commented on this when he talked about the first Apollo landing, Apollo 11. From the beginning, it had been thought that most of the processes would be monitored and decisions made at Mission Control. But things moved fast, the radio communications were not good and the computer on the lunar module was locking up. He could have, and possibly should have, aborted the landing. But he decided that he needed to give up some control, to let the balance of decision-making shift closer to the moon. He trusted his people, Armstrong and Aldrin, and the rest is history. He knew when to step back.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Pyle: It has been written again and again that the key of most successful communication is story. A friend of mine from my Stanford days made that the cornerstone of his doctoral thesis, and it’s provided a rich career path for him, and attracts a lot of interest. For me, it all goes back to the chief of the tribe, collecting the villagers around the campfire, telling of the Great Hunt. It helps if the challenges are vast and the prize substantial, but we all love a good story well told. And if I learned anything in Hollywood, it’s to make sure your story has a hero, an antagonist, a “story arc” and a satisfying ending. A mere “situation” does not a story make… it needs to have the aforementioned elements to be elevated into a satisfying – and persuasive – experience for the listener. It takes practice to do this, but once you get the hang of it, good storytelling becomes second nature. But you must first learn to find the story to tell.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Pyle: When the aerospace contractor Grumman won the contract to build the lunar module in 1962, they were a company whose fortunes had been made on tough, bulletproof fighter planes that had won WWII in the Pacific, and later via military jets. Design once, build many, make them tough as nails. Smooth fuselages, swept wings, powerful motors. Now they had to build this weird lunar lander that had antennae and maneuvering thrusters and all kinds of stuff apparently hung on it. Some of the old guard even said, “There’s stuff sticking out all over… it’s gonna break!” They needed to retrain their own minds, to get away from aerodynamics and assembly-line thinking and get their heads wrapped around this notion of a spacecraft. The LM was the first true spaceship – it would live its entire operational life in a vacuum, and its entire purpose was to land once, keep the astronauts alive for a few days at most, then get them back home. Completely expendable, one use only. It was hard for many of the engineers and managers, who were accustomed to an entirely different way of doing things. But one by one they got with the program, and the lunar module was one of the most successful spacecraft ever built with nary a failure in its operational life.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Pyle: I am no expert on MBA programs, but many of my friends and associates went through them. From what I know, I would say that along with the excellent training that many of them provide, they could benefit from addressing some of the more human factors we have discussed. Seek passionate employees who have a sense of mission, Give them a real stake in the process. Through your leadership, provide them an environment conducive to innovation success. And perhaps most importantly: provide clear goals. Muddy objectives do not inspire great minds.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Pyle: Not to be overly simplistic, but I believe that consistently high-level innovation is the largest hurdle many companies will face. And it should not be sporadic, but continuous, a core part of the entrenched corporate culture. There are probably a few dozen answers to your question, but that’s my small contribution. So many gurus and books try to quantify innovation, or to create a system which will assure success. I respect these motivations. But innovation as seen at places like the Johnson Space Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example, is not a process that can be canned. Some of the leadership principles can be observed and emulated, however, and the spirit that drives innovation in NASA programs can be borrowed and learned from. It begins with a creative spark that addresses a problem or challenge – that clear goal I spoke of – this is where inspired leadership comes in to play. And once the process of innovation has begun, like starting a campfire, this ember needs to be protected, nurtured and allowed to blaze. Sometimes this can be a challenge. You must overcome conservative managers, guarding their budgets; you must protect the innovating team from undue negativity, provide them time, space and a tool-rich environment in which to innovate, and so many other things. The key innovator/s must be given a stake in the innovative process from the creative spark through implementation, if possible. There’s more, but those are a few key factors that I see.

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Rod cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His LinkedIn link

His Amazon link

Huffington Post link

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