Thursday, September 28, 2017

Singing Karaoke

(Photo of microphone)
(Photo approved for reuse under CC0)

Tackling a threat head-on before it becomes a true problem may at times be the only way to prevent a major disruption in the life of a project. Initiating actions proactively rather than responding to events as they unfold often requires from the project manager foresight, willingness to take risks and challenge the status quo, and resilience in face of adversity. In short, it takes the courage of a leader.

In the following case, Jenny Baer-Riedhart, the leader of NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project decided to cope proactively with potential threats to the ERAST project by embracing new stakeholders and convincing them to own the project and act on its behalf.  

The goal of this project was to test Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to use for research purposes. In the middle of the project, Jenny's NASA team had to unexpectedly relocate from the Dryden Flight Research Center in California to the U.S. Navy facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Human test pilots dominating the Dryden Flight Center were reluctant to provide precious airtime to the unpiloted planes her project focused on, thereby hindering her progress and making the move necessary. 

Based on past experience, however, Jenny foresaw a threat.  She knew that to be successful she would need to secure the support of not only the authorities and crews at the Navy base, but also the residents of Kauai island, who had a natural apprehension of outsiders. Thus, Jenny proactively directed her attention to winning over new stakeholders.

Jenny's first creative step was to search for a 'marketing agent' who would help her win the hearts of the Navy base personnel and the surrounding community. This led to Dave, a former executive officer at the base. While Dave was very willing to help, he had a quirky requirement! He requested that before he began, Jenny and her entire team sing karaoke at his house. Jenny was willing to go along with the odd request if it meant project success, so she made sure they all attended and that each team member—even the shy ones—managed to sing something. This won Dave over, and he proceeded to smooth the way for Jenny’s team.

He cut through red tape in dealing with the Navy base authorities, and he won over Hawaii’s political machine. In addition, he introduced Jenny’s team to Kauai’s unique culture, and they consequently came to understand that Kauaians place emphasis on their children's education. So Jenny’s team developed programs in the schools and assembled displays at the local museum. They hired students from the local community college to help arrange an open house that was attended by approximately 1000 local schoolchildren.

All told, the team probably spent about 20 percent of their project time on the educational program, but the dividends exceeded the investment! They had full support of the local community, and in fact, Hawaii’s entire congressional delegation sent NASA a letter of commendation, praising Jenny’s team for its success. Previously-unavailable money was approved for the project. And not even six months into their move to Kauai, the team earned a world record for solar-powered aircraft, flying higher and longer than any previous craft.

Clearly, Jenny’s leadership and proactive activities were keys to the great success of this challenging project. And all it took was a willingness to belt out Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”

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