Friday, February 27, 2009

Gen Y and NASA, Continued.

I've gotten many more good comments in the last couple days, and a huge spike in my hits thanks to NASAWatch. Who'da thunk it? Anyhow, many of the comments were variations on a theme. I wrote some of this in response to a response from my buddy Doc, but I'll repost here and elaborate a bit.


Some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of labels, generational or otherwise. However, this discussion has been going on for a long, long time. You can probably find the ancient Greeks bemoaning the degradation of the youths of their day. Others dislike the premise of "paying one's dues." I honestly don't know how long is a reasonable amount of time to "learn a system." However, for the sake of argument, let's say 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, but large organizations are all pretty much the same. 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. And that sort of organization is going to have more and more gray hairs and seniority the higher up the food chain you go. If you're not interested in working in a large, bureaucratic organization, you go find a job somewhere else or you go start your own business.

The fact is that NASA IS a large, bureaucratic organization when others would like it to be something different. If Nick, Doc, 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. Keep those thoughts coming. I'd also like to thank Dave for his link to the Gen X Files.

And in the meantime, I'll open it this up for discussion here: how do you transform a traditional, seniority-based organization into one where younger folks with bright ideas to contribute can move up the food chain without having to wait 10-20 years for "their turn" or to "pay their dues?"



Madi said...

My name is Madi, and I've been involved in the efforts at JSC and have been following the discussions of late.

I have to preface the rest of my thoughts with the following: in working with my peers on the NextGen efforts, I have yet to get the impression that we've invested our time and energy into these efforts in hopes of rising up the chain of command, so to speak. That is one point in the criticism we've received that I just can't wrap my head around. I'm sure this is a common occurrence in the corporate world (and maybe within the professional circles I'm a part of, and I just don't know it); but what really has struck me from the very beginning of my involvement has been the sheer passion and dedication my peers have shown continually in wanting to uphold the legacy of the agency and its work. That is the common thread that keeps us so engaged in continuing these efforts. So, if we see so much value and benefit in continuing to do what we love, then when all the little issues, like miscommunications, a visible process breakdown, etc., come about - it's hard not to be proactive in attempting to resolve those issues, to make sure our work environment is as amazing and supportive as it has the potential to be.

With that said, I don't know that there is a singular answer to your question. I personally don't take major issue with our hierarchical structure and believe that it's essential in being an effective organization, especially given our size. I believe the question should actually be: "How do you transform the organization, into one where employees can openly contribute, in all facets of organizational operations?" In discussions I've had over the last several months, it's become apparent to me that, though the NextGen efforts have been labeled "Gen Y," the thoughts that have come up within that community are common to thoughts prevalent across many generations at the center. It's a loaded question, but to me it essentially boils down to understanding how to incrementally make our organization more receptive to new or different ideas - whether that's technical, process-related, or business. The path of least resistance towards transformation is through small incremental changes. It's, therefore, through a combination of efforts targeting cultural paradigm shift, as well as those targeting specific issues we see within our own organization, that we can transform the very core of the organization itself.

As an organization, we have leaders who have a vast amount of experience combined and are in positions to make decisions based on their knowledge and those very experiences; without which, they may not be as effective. However, one of the very things I believe we should spend time considering is the way in which we groom our future leaders. Of course those experiences will be essential for the next group of folks to fill the shoes of those who have helped and are helping NASA be what it is today - experiences are formative in nature, and their value in developing a person and his/her skills is undeniable. But with the development of new tools, theories, and practices, it's essential that we leverage every resource that is out in the world today (and even the ones that haven't quite made it out there yet!) to make sure we honor the legacy of all those who've come before us and who continue to pave the path towards exploring the unknown. Without adapting to the new and changing world, it's difficult to imagine that we can captivate imaginations and appeal to humanity's quest for unveiling new truths.

Whew - that turned out to be much longer than I'd anticipated, and I hope that I conveyed my thoughts somewhat understandably (and if not, feel free to ask for clarification, please!). Long story short: I think there's always room for improvement...that's my personal motto in life, anyway :)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the shout out! Talking about generations is the first big step for building the next ideal.


Tim said...

I think the change starts with a culture that ensures new employees (young and old!) are trained effectively and know the context in which their ideas and decisions will be evaluated.

The underlying idea from the "pay your dues" mentality is that it takes a certain amount of time for a new person to learn and understand the system well enough to have insights into improvements. What seems to be missing is a standard rule of when a person has learned "enough" about the system and what information should be included in their training. If someone could hold up their "NASA 101" training certificate, would that give them credibility in a discussion?

There is a short window of time when a new person can see the system from an outside perspective. The training must allow for those initial observations and fresh ideas to be captured and preserved while still giving the employee the necessary background and information about how the system works now.

The other important factor is to have managers trained in effectively evaluating advice from less-experienced employees. Clear expectations and a defined process for evaluating (and enacting!) new ideas are critical to empowering the employees. The whole system of training, evaluation, and feedback must be in place to support systemic changes in the organization.

Anonymous said...

I think the key is to have older experienced people in the organization that are willing to help young people with new ideas to succeed. This mean both helping fix the problems with a concept and to help explain the politics of how to get it done.

When I was coming up through the ranks (at a NASA center), I would often get shot down with "I've been doing this for 20 years, and I know what I'm doing"... the simple act of having an idea to do something different was a personal insult to these person. The only way I was able to get my ideas implemented was to tell them to an older person who I knew would steal the idea and claim it for their own. But simply having an older person advocate it was enough to get it heard.

Now that I am old enough to finally have my ideas heard a little bit, I find that I can't come up with as many good ones as I used to be able to. All of my new ideas are really ones that I had 10 years ago, but just now someone will listen.

So I've decided that I'll go out and meet the young trouble makers. I'll suffer through the things that annoy us older folks when we talk to youngsters (who are often arrogant and full of themselves), and I'll hear them out. I'll help them and make sure they get visibility for being innovators.

It helps that I'm not threatened by these young upstarts... not because I'm indispensable, but I don't really care anymore. All of my youthful enthusiasm is long dead, and I resent my job. Doing my part to change the system is my own little revenge on all of the bozos that I've dealt with over the years.

Bart said...


I loved this bit:

>>Doing my part to change the system is my own little revenge on all of the bozos that I've dealt with over the years.<<

Ha! Truly healthy and confident leaders and organizations are not threatened by new ideas--they wants the best people around them so they can ensure (or improve!) the execution of their vision. They also want bright people to hand off their organizations to, either when they're out of town or when they retire.

I'm sorry to hear that that has not been your experience, but I'm glad to see you're willing to help young go-getters go-get-em.