Thursday, February 26, 2009

Following Up On Gen Y and NASA

Yesterday's posting on the latest "Gen Y presentation" produced some great, thought-provoking comments. Nick's response deserves to be quoted and responded to, so I'll do that below and try to comment where I think appropriate.

Re: “bigger challenges

”If you have any insight into what those “bigger challenges” are, I’d love to hear them. We’re actually going through a process of sorts right now to identify them and I’d really like to get you involved in those discussions.

Another reader comment from "1963" actually anticipated some of my thoughts:

Perhaps I'm just another grumpy old man, but sometimes these Gen-Y inputs sound like folks who demand to be respected before they have paid any dues that can be respected. While it takes smarts to come up with a good idea, it takes wisdom to know how to get it implemented in a large, political bureaucracy. And while we can complain and wish that NASA wasn't a large, political bureaucracy - the reality is what it is, and the odds of it changing are low. But does that mean we give up? Or does that mean we use our smarts to work the politics in our favor?

Here's what work comes down to for me: performance, process, politics, and people.

  • Performance boils down to the content: do you know your stuff? Are you conversant enough with the actual work being performed? Depending on the complexity of your job, mastery of it could take anywhere from one hour to one month to one year to a lifetime. I look at this shakedown part of a job as ending when I know enough to understand the tasks and boundaries expected of the content. No one respects "the new guy" until s/he has been around long enough to know the business and make positive contributions. In some jobs, the new-guy perspective is wanted/valued/respected up front (consultants come to mind), while in others a "new guy" might be anyone with less than 10 years of experience. I've heard of such organizations, and the only way to win them over is to get down enough of the language to let the others know you can speak it.
  • Processes are the things one must do to function in the organization: do you know where to get office supplies? Do you know how to get information from one group or another? Do you know which forms must be used to accomplish tasks?
  • Politics are pretty straightforward as well: what are the organizational and power relationships within a particular work group? Woe to the newbie who starts talking about their politics or telling jokes in the first week without a complete understanding of the local norms. Office politics also define the boundaries of how you advance your own agenda (once you understand the content and the processes).
  • People are who you have to work with, day in and day out. Do you understand what drives your coworkers? Do you know who knows what you need to know? Knowledge of individual motivations can be different from political knowledge. You might find someone who plays a very smooth political game, but once you get to know them one on one, you might find that they hate the game but play it out of sheer self-defense. This doesn't mean being best-buddies with everyone in the office, but it does mean having more than a vague realization of the other personalities in the room.

The point of all these basic definitions is that you need a knowledge of all of them to be truly effective in any workplace. And, as I was a pain-in-the-neck twentysomething 15-odd years ago, I can tell you that I learned most of these lessons the hard way by trying to do or fix things MY way first without bothering to learn the way things worked around me. I get the whole youthful enthusiasm thing and the desire to change the world and fix things that are obviously broken right now. However (again, after butting heads with more than a few managers in the hospitality and defense industries), I eventually had to learn to slow down, find out why things operated the way they did, and then figure out the most effective way to use the system as it is to move things in a more positive direction.

Admittedly, this is my personal approach, and might not work with everyone. However, I sometimes sense that youthful impatience in the presentations OpenNASA produces, and I've talked to enough people (like 1963) to know that Gen Y's desire to come in and fix/change things without "learning the system" or "paying their dues" can grate. Obviously, the world is changing and Gen X and the Boomers aren't getting any younger. But the Xers and the Boomers have been with the organization a bit longer, and so have a better handle on what's going on, how to get things done, and what to expect of this or that decision/idea. And there's also seniority to consider. Some people are not eager to be shown the door to make room for someone half their age, especially in the middle of a recession. I'm not saying that's what you're saying, but that's how some people perceive the presentations.

One thing I've noted especially among the young is a distinct impatience with "war stories," those long rambles that can come out of the mouth of older folks (you know--anyone over 30) about some event way back in the Dark Ages (like, the 1990s). Eyes roll, sighs blow forth, and the youth crosses their arms, hoping the lecture or story will end soon. But those stories are a great deal of how human beings and institutions carry on institutional knowledge. I've heard folks talk until they're blue in the face about "knowledge management systems" and "collecting lessons learned," but the fact remains that if someone's got a question about a particular type of problem, they're more likely to march down the hall, collar an old-timer ("graybeard" being the un-PC term) and ask, "Hey, how did you solve X on Shuttle/Apollo?"

I don't think the impatience problem is a particularly Gen Y problem. Like I said, I had it myself. It's just something to think about. It's not all about the new toys/technologies. Sometimes it's about the stories and the relationships you build. One thing I'd like to see NASA try is a pairing-up of graybeard mentors with rookie engineers/scientists as a living means of knowledge transfer.

Re: “brain heavy”

That’s an interesting point. I made this presentation in particular with the Digital Astronaut (DA) project in mind – which, is brain heavy. Academics, scientists, doctors, and all that stuff. I’ll give some more thought to your observation but one thought I have on this subject is even the folks “bending metal, installing wiring, turning wrenches, and welding structures” have ideas they’d love to share. In fact, those ideas are some of the most valuable ones you can get because they are the ones who are “doing it.”

Good point. My "four P's" above would apply to this group as well.

I think there’s a pretty big misconception behind the “Gen Y” label and how it’s been spun that’s its all about the technology and fancy web 2.0 gadgets. That’s not how I see it for sure, and as a project manager, my goal with DA is going to be able to figure out how to utilize the functionality of collaborative technology without creating barriers for people to contribute. It’s a starting point, not an ending point, and something I know will take quite a bit of continuous iteration to get right. That will probably mean not using all the bells and whistles on whatever website we put up. It will also mean augmenting whatever we do with other ways of interaction. I definitely get that and it’s a big part of our plan. I’ll try to do a better job of spelling that out next time – heck, maybe that’s a whole other presentation in itself. Hmm….

Okay, that makes sense. But, again, some people might not be comfortable with your new digital environment. I experienced one of my first neo-Luddite moments this week when I learned that I've got to transition from Office 2003 to 2007, which has a completely different interface for Microsoft Word. Okay, go ahead and laugh, but I've been using the same interface professionally, with moderate changes over the years, since 1996. That's 13 years of using the same program, but by golly, I know the system I've got, and can play it like a Stradivarius. Now I've got to readjust all of my usual keyboard and mouse rhythms. My productivity will drop for a few weeks (or months) as I spend time deciphering the new menus, taking classes to learn a whole new set of shortcuts, and in general grousing about the evils of Bill Gates and his merry band of outlaw programmers. All I'd ask is that you consider the user habits of other (older) audiences.

Re: Contributions

You talked about how these tools will enable people to make fundamentally better contributions than they might make f2f. That’s something that I flush out more verbally in the talk itself, and hopefully I’ll find some time to write those notes up into a post on sometime soon, but essentially… yes. Again, I’ll go back to the DA project. Even the team I work with is spread out across the country. I wish we werent’ because we all much prefer F2F meetings. Part of what we are building will be built out of necessity for us to collaborate on our own project! I think that’s great and will really
help drive out the requirements, which will help us clearly articulate exactly what contributions we are looking for. We hope to have this flushed out when we launch a few months from now. But one of the major goals of the DA is to gather input from scientists, coders, doctors, students, academics, and people from all over the place. The contributions themselves can be in a few different buckets, including improving the actual code structure of the model, adding to the knowledge base behind the model, and building on the “hypothesis” of the model to run experiments and simulations and ultimately help us develop countermeasures and buy down the risk of sending humans on long duration space flights. Our eventual website will have the audiences clearly defined as well as what contributions we’re looking for. It will no doubt be a big challenge, but also one that would be immensely valuable if we can accomplish it because it won’t be just NASA funded scientists and engineers looking at the problem any more, but others as well. I’m convinced that broadening our scope of input will
help provide better solutions in the end.

Re: Global Marketplace

I think DA is a good example of what this can look like for NASA. Not everything can be out their for external collaboration for the reasons you highlighted. But there is a portion of what we do that can. If we open up the items in our work portfolio that can be collaborated on publicly, it would help us leverage our already overworked internal resources. The DA is about human physiology and science. There’s a huge reliance on knowledge from the medical profession, which is an opportune thing to open up to an outside community of collaborators.

Re: moving forward

If you’ve been following the discussion as Bart and I have, you hear a lot of feedback given that we need concrete examples of what this looks like at NASA (versus just talking about it). Although I do think there is a lot of education and awareness that also needs to be done (hence the presentations), I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, its not as easy as just being able to implement some of this stuff for the average joe at NASA for a host of reasons. Luckily, I’m in a place now that I really have an opportunity (and authority) to share a knowledge asset (the computational model that is DA) with the world and work with others on further developing the body of knowledge and digital
analogue for all to use. My hope is that not only will NASA benefit, but that people around the world will benefit by using DA as an “innovation incubator” of sorts. I see the government’s role as one of an integrator of knowledge and a facilitator of collaboration – ultimately providing the right ingredients to enable innovation and keep pushing science and exploration forward. The idea of a lone genius, sitting in his office cubicle, coming up with “the great idea” is mysterious and romantic, but maybe a bit unrealistic. True innovation happens when you have knowledge brokers taking even old tried ideas, and applying them in new ways. I’m hoping the DA helps make that happen.

When it comes to making better contributions, the primary arguments I've read--on NASAWatch and elsewhere--focus on "Showing me the money." We need high-power, high-efficiency, high-capability, low-weight spacecraft and launch vehicles. How will DA or other collaborative enviroments bring about those results? Back up those answers with data, and your agenda will move forward swiftly.

I look forward to viewing DA in more detail. Again, I would like to throw in a recommendation or two from a technical writer's point of view.

  • Who is your audience? I'm guessing web-minded people, yes? Well, that will probably mean a younger audience, meaning you might lose an older audience. You need to consider alternate delivery methods for those of us addicted to hard copies. Booklets, handouts, white papers, and other more traditional media, while passé in some quarters, are still traditional and acceptable media for conveying messages within NASA.
  • Also, what do you want your audience to do or how do you want them to react after using the information on DA? This means designing your application, interface, and outputs with particular needs in mind.
  • How much data does your audience need to accomplish what they will want from the product?
Anyway, this was a really long response, but as you can probably tell, one that I’m passionate about. I’d love to talk to anyone who has any thoughts, in particular about how to create an online, open-source, computational model of human physiology (digital astronaut).

My response was pretty long, too. If you made it this far, congratulations. Thanks for continuing to prompt and provoke debate, Nick. There are things to be done on all sides of the debate, including mine.


Doc said...

Last comment on this issue from me, I promise.

If "learning the system" and knowing the 4 Ps are prerequisites for changing things...why haven't the people around long enough to understand them fixed things already?
While I get what you're aiming does one trust the seniority to fix the culture/system when they're the ones who f'ed it up in the first place?

Bartacus said...


I honestly don't know how long is a reasonable amount of time to "learn a system." However, for the sake of argument, someone should be able to talk as though they belonged there after they've been on the job a year.

Some people manage to graduate and go right into some high-paying job. Some drop out of high school and start their own companies. Some get all the way through a doctorate and still have no idea what they're going to be when they grow up. The points here are that individuals all develop differently. However, if you are interested in establishing a career in a large, bureaucratic organization, then you're going to have to play by that organization's rules. If you're not interested in working in a large, bureaucratic organization, you go find a job somewhere else.

The fact is that NASA IS a large, bureaucratic organization when others would like it to be something different. If Nick, you, and the rest of Gen Y (or, God help us, some members of Gen X) want to change NASA into something other than it is now, well...that'll require another blog, and I'll have to think about it.

Keep those thoughts coming.


Skytland said...


I’m so encouraged by your feedback and the discussion on this blog. Thanks for the valuable feedback and your willingness to spend time thinking about the subjects. Here are a few more thoughts in response to both your new post and the previous comments on the first one. You have me really engaged and therefore, well, this is long. Sorry about that!

Re: Anything that has to do with “generations” (
When we made the Gen Y Presentation about 16 months ago, our goal was to start a conversation and get people thinking about the implications of the demographics shifts in the workforce. Although I think it’s still extremely valuable for people to have this discussion, our focus inside NASA (at least JSC where I am) shifted many months ago to how to make NASA the agency we want to work for and how to engage both our own workforce and those outside the gates. We have been focusing on “what can be done” and “how to do it” for a long time now. If you are just joining in the discussion about “generations” and are interested in cutting through the debate and learning how it affects the workforce and organizations, I highly recommend an article in the July-August 2007 Harvard Business Review by Neil Howe and William Strauss called "The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes Will Evolve." Howe and Strauss are two of the leading thought leaders in generational studies and this article in particular does a great job mapping out some of the important trends, which can really provide insight into the evolution of organizations. This is something I see that Dave Sohigian has touched on in his blog as well. Dave, thanks for posting the link!

Re: 1963’s Comment
You struck me with your statement: “and while we can complain and wish that NASA wasn’t a large, political bureaucracy – the reality is what it is, and the odds of changing are low.” Maybe it’s the challenge associated with the low odds, or maybe it’s my semi-youthful optimism, but I disagree. In fact, THIS is the reason I work at NASA today. What brought me to NASA was the opportunity to engage in spaceflight. Just like many others, I wanted to be an Astronaut. But, shortly after I arrived, I found a new passion – one that is way more important than my seemingly selfish desire to join the corp – what I realized was that there were low odds of changing NASA, and it seemed that nobody was willing to take on creating the space agency we expect it to be. That’s when I decided that my career wasn’t going to be about myself, it was going to be about helping others create the organization we all dream NASA would be. Many people, including some very prominent figures in the private spaceflight industry, who spent YEARS trying to change NASA, have repeatedly tried to convince me that there is no hope and that my time would be way more valuable elsewhere. Trust me, I’ve had MANY opportunities to leave. And maybe they are right, maybe there is no hope for NASA, but I fail to believe that. My involvement is driven by the goal to re-invent the NASA people expect it to be. It’s the reason I’ve forgone many opportunities to “climb the ladder” or pursue more lucrative options. It’s the reason I work hard and late.

What I’ve also realized is that this isn’t a one man effort. NASA isn’t ready for radical change. We’re most likely not going to see a shift at NASA even if we get the most talented administrator or senior leaders. What it will take is incremental change – the small, sometimes seemingly insignificant contributions, by us all. I really encourage you to join those growing number of those of us who believe and are actively working to create a really amazing agency!

Re: Matt’s Comment
Matt, you are exactly right in your post on your blog when you say “The participatory approach creates a wild card effect that helps to ensure that no stone is left unturned.” I think one of the easy misconceptions people make if they just see a presentation or comment online is that this is ALL we are doing, which is obviously not true. But it is a new addition to portfolio of work that we do – one that has, as you said, a very large potential for true innovation because it expands the set of problem solvers. I’m personally attracted to risky opportunities that can potentially be an organization game changer, which is why my presentations are about things like ways to actually implement participatory exploration. I really do think it can be done.

Re: Doc
I think one thing that fuels the discussion about “paying dues” is the incentive structure for Civil Servants within the government. It’s something I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about and one of the reasons I think “participatory exploration” is so important, especially for our own workforce. I see the results of the Towers Perrin survey I referred to as alive and well all around me. I really get discouraged when I see my co-workers dis-engaged. The first thing I ask them is “what do YOU want to work on.” I try to find out what there passion is and then help them connect to someone within the organization that is doing what they are interested in. Even the most mundane job is a lot better if you are given an opportunity to pursue what you are truly passionate about.

Re: Anonymous
I really appreciate the time and hought you put into your comment and the examples you shared. You sound like a very good servant leader and someone who really has had an amazing career – not because just what you accomplished, but because of you willingness to create leaders in others around you! I learned a lot from your input. Thanks for sharing!

Re: Barts post on “Following Up On Gen Y and NASA”

Performance, process, politics, and process:
That’s really some great input; I’m going to include it in some things we are working on. One of the things I think anyone who is managing or leading anything can benefit from is a “vision framework” of sorts. You hit on it here. What are you doing? How do you measure your progress? What process are you going to use to get there? What are the politics and how can you address them? And most importantly, how can you engage people? You make some really good points.

I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that my impatience is on purpose. I spent many hours thinking about “the system”. I could probably write a book on it – or at least contribute a chapter. And, although I’m not sure how long it will take until some tells me that I’ve “paid my dues”, I know full well what it means to work hard and prove your abilities. I’ve been at NASA since 2000 (9 years) and have worked hard every single day since I arrived. I personally think the discussion about “entitlement” is too often taken out of context – especially within the discussion we are having at NASA. The young people I work with at NASA are very hard working, respectful, fully conscious of the seniority system, and extremely passionate about what they do. Many of them actively seek out mentors (despite no real formal program to encourage mentorship) and really value feedback. In many cases, we have been driving the requirements for knowledge transfer systems you are talking about. We couldn’t agree more!

“Show me the money”
We’ll be doing exactly that when we launch DA formally. My goal at the PMC was two fold. First, I wanted to let people know that “participatory exploration” was more than just public outreach or taking a trip to Mt. Everest. We can actually use it to aggregate useful contributions which could benefit mission relevant projects. Secondly, I wanted to let people know we were working on DA so that if they had something to contribute or wanted to be involved, they could help out. It worked and I made some valuable connections at the conference, and after thanks to the online posting on slideshare, that will help me accelerate my projects schedule.

“other blog post”
So you mentioned in your comment back to Doc that you would have to write another blog post about the rules of a big bureaucratic organization. I’d really like to encourage you to do that because I’d personally like to hear what your thoughts are! There are some very real rules to play by, but there are also some rules that are artifacts of the culture, organizational structure, or other residual results of an aging/growing organization. These are very interesting things to explore!

Bartacus said...

I'm downloading the HBR article you recommended (for $6.50) and added the authors' book to my Amazon reading list.

I think I covered most of the rules and assumptions that govern large bureaucracies in the "4 P's" discussion. My brain hurts right now, so I might need to meditate on this some more tomorrow. I would say, just as a starting point, that the top-down organization is at least as old as the Pharaohs. It is traditional and relatively predictable. Those are traits that taxpayers often like in their government.

I will give some thought to your comments. I have no trouble joining groups that question the status quo; I just want to know that said groups have a worthwhile end in mind.

Salud and good evening,


1963 said...

Although self-labeled as a grumpy old man, I am pleased to read Skytland's comments. For whatever reason, I too have chosen to stay with NASA although other opportunities have arisen. I've occasionally questioned my reasons for staying. But I have never been tempted to become just another civil service zombie who has clearly given up. I have learned to take pleasure in small victories within my sphere of influence, and I work like heck within the system to expand my sphere - even "playing politics" when necessary. I guess what I fear most with some of the "Gen-Y" efforts is that they may be trying to eat the whole elephant too quickly and will end up choking to death - then either leaving from frustration or becoming another of the living dead.
We "old folks" (46 isn't really that old, is it?) grew up with Star Trek and the first round of Star Wars, and I guess I still have that nugget of a dream of building starships and exploring the universe. I grew up on the Space Coast, I saw Saturn V's climb into the heavens from my backyard. But as I've aged, I have decided that human expansion beyond earth is inevitable. And I am glad to be a part of it, even if it turns out the effort I'm a part of is a dead end. In science, sometimes many dead ends must be explored before the way is found. Will NASA be the way? Perhaps, and I will endeavor to make it so. Or will NASA prove that it must come from private enterprise? If that is reality, I have made my peace with it.
I do have one strong opinion, if it comes down to leaving or becoming another zombie - leave. NASA's biggest anchor is the zombies we drag along with us. And by leaving, you may be able to keep the dream alive in the private sector. In the end, this is not about NASA - it is about those of us within our species who have heard the music of the spheres and believe our destiny is in the stars.