Innovation the NASA Way: A book review by Bob Morris

Inno NASA WayInnovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success
Rod Pyle
McGraw-Hill (2014)

Valuable business lessons to be learned from a truly unique “engine of innovation”

Until reading and then re-reading this book, almost everything I knew about the U.S. government’s National Aeronautical and Space Administration was based on what I learned from two films, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. What I find remarkable, almost unbelievable, is that so much (if not most) of what I learned from the material provided by Rod Pyle can be of substantial value to leaders in almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. When required by circumstances, almost all organizations need to be bold when responding to threats and opportunities, sufficiently daring when challenging the status quo, and passionate about what they do and how they do it.

As Pyle suggests, “During the space race, NASA’s golden age to many observers, innovation was encouraged in a number of ways. First came need-based innovation: the task set before the agency in 196 [by then President John Kennedy] was so vast, so demanding, that the new and original became commonplace…The second was innovation at the end of a sharp stick…when there simply was neither the time nor the resources [for additional verification]…Finally, there was innovation of the more blue-sky variety… innovative mission that were flown only on paper for years, with one notable exception being Skylab.”

Pyle makes skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include these:

o At the beginning of Chapters 1-17, a set of “Challenges” to create a context, a frame of reference, for initiatives needed to ask questions, solve problems, etc.

o Boxed set of “Solutions” for each Challenge

o At the conclusion of Chapters 1-17, a set of Innovations to review achievements with a brief evaluation that suggests lessons to be learned

Pyle focuses on major projects that include X-15 (Pages 31-34); Mariner 4 (45-54); Apollo 1 (71-85 and 133 and 134), 8 (137-155), and 11 (157-171); Skylab (173-190); Viking (191-203); Space Shuttle (225-239); and International Space Station (241-250). He suggests lessons to be learned from both NASA organization, in terms of both its achievements and its occasional failures. Consider as a case in point Eugene Francis (“Gene”) Krantz who served as a Flight Director, the successor to NASA founding Flight Director Chris Kraft, during the Gemini and Apollo programs, and best known for his role in directing the successful Mission Control team efforts to save the crew of Apollo 13.

Previously, in January of 1967, three astronauts — Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee — were incinerated on the ground while conducting some pre-launch tests for what was to have been Apollo 1. After that tragedy, Krantz made a statement that came to be called “The Krantz Dictum.” Here are his concluding remarks:

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will lever again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and our skills. Mission control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control .” In my opinion, Krantz personifies NASA leadership and teamwork at their best.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Pyle’s coverage.

o Success on Mars (Pages 13-14)
o Innovation from the Old World (23-26)
o The Dirty Rag (26-28)
o Fifty-One Feet of Mean (31-33)
o Just Another Day in the Cockpit (42-44)
o Finding Mars, and, Goodbye, Martians…Hello, Mars (49-53)
o How Hard Can It Be? (55-60)
o Just a Simple Test…, and, “We’re Burning Up” (71-75)
o “The Krantz Dictum” (77-81)
o Into the Unknown, and, Understanding the Challenge (89-93)
o Daring the Heavens, and, Facing the Monster (103-108)
o A Bold Answer to a Final Problem (114-116)
o Innovation in Desperation, and, The Breakthrough (123-128)
o An Urgent Call (140-144)
o Overcoming Doubt, and, Boldness Rewarded (150-155)
o Inspiration Before Danger (162-164)
o Coming Home: Bringing NASA’s Lessons to Your Business (263-270)

Although there are indeed many valuable business lessons to be learned from NASA’s triumphs, and especially from its two tragedies and other crises, the fact remains that this organization is also unique in several significant ways. For example, literally nothing in its operations is insignificant, as we all learned after a rubber O-ring proved inadequate during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

That said, it remains for those who read this book to determine what is most relevant to their own organization. Rod Pyle urges his reader to be bold, daring, and passionate when pursuing opportunities. Fortunately, he provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel to help his readers achieve more, much more than they once thought possible. If and when there is need a reassurance of what can be achieved, look at the moon.

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