Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Payoff: Working With Trust

Last month’s blog was entitled The Cost of Working Without Trust. This month we share a story1 which stands in marked contrast. It is from Jerry Madden, a successful NASA project manager:
It’s easier to sell a project if you can show it is based on a previous successful project. People feel safer with the tried and true. When we introduced the ISEE* project, we told NASA headquarters that we would build the spacecraft exactly like the IMP-H**. The structure would be the same and we would keep the same basic electronics as far as possible. Because I believed it could be done, I issued this edict to everyone in the project and even appointed one of the best mechanical engineers to be in charge of the structure.
A short while into the project, he showed up at my office and said, “When are you going to get down off your high horse and let us design a structure for ISEE that can fly. IMP-H just will not work.” I was taken aback. This meant taking a risk rather than going down the same road of a successful project. Had he been someone else, I would have asked to have him assigned to a different project. How could I trust someone to carry out directives in a project in which I totally believed?
However, I trusted him explicitly because I had worked with him for a long time. This was an opportunity to change direction, based on solid judgment. I swallowed my pride, looked at him squarely in the face and said, “If that is the way you truly feel, now is about as good a time as any. Will it still have 16 sides and will it look the same on the outside?”
He said that it would, but it will be larger and will bear almost no resemblance on the inside. I said, “Fine. I will inform Headquarters that we will have to mod [modify] the structure and make additional changes to the internal systems.” Fortunately, the project was set up as a highly flexible organization with competent and experienced management and was made the change to the new concept with very little static. In the end, the successful ISEE spacecraft from a distance looked the same as IMP-H but internally, both in electronics and structure, there was no resemblance. You have to know when to eat your own words and enjoy the taste.
Practically the same sort of thing occurred with my counterpart in ESA who was building the ISEE-B spacecraft that was mated to the ISEE-A for launch. In the selling of the program their project manager had accepted too stringent requirements on the spacecraft partially to fit within the IMP-H. The ESA method of management was slightly different from ours so when they got to the execution phase, they brought in a new manager known for his competency and integrity, whose perspective was not jaded and who was able to see the project elements in a fresh light. He took one look at the system and like my mechanical engineer, had only one thing to say, “This is rubbish!” Here too, the future of this important project now hung on the opinion of one man.
Fortunately, my counterpart did not have to eat his own words but only those of his predecessor, who had determined the spacecraft concept design. My counterpart was straightforward and honest and recognized the value of flexibility, which helped to make the program change workable. As a true leader, he was able to affect the sharp change to the concept. Our two teams immediately formed one team to get the job done because we recognized not only the competence of our colleagues but also their integrity.
A key lesson from this story is some of the most important decisions, made by people in a rigorous and “thing-based” profession (engineering), and some of the most sophisticated technological artifacts, are often made and accepted based on two human concepts: intuition and trust. Soft is hard.
1 Source:  Madden, J. (2000). In A. Laufer & E. J. Hoffman, Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders (pp. 104-105). New York, NY: Wiley.
*ISEE means International Sun-Earth Explorer, one of NASA’s Explorers spacecrafts.
**IMP means Interplanetary Monitoring Platform; IMP-H was one in a series of such spacecrafts.