Internal video blasts NASA for stifling innovation

Got a great new idea, NASA contractor? You'll be met with bureaucracy, condescension and be told to stay focused on your assignment. So says an internal video that dramatizes problems in the agency.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

What happens when a NASA engineer comes up with an important new innovation that increases safety and efficiency? Does her manager give her leeway to investigate further, allocate resources and help develop a way to integrate that work into the overall process? Or is it shut down as "not in our requirements," "outside your scope" and "unapproved by your contract manager"?

A little video by astronaut Andy Thomas (who has flown in space four times) tells a sad but not-unexpected story: Engineer has great new idea, which she takes to her supervisor, to the branch chief, to the Project Office, to the Director. And she always gets the same responses:

  • "We've never done anything like this before. This is not something you or this organization is responsible for."
  • "There are no requirements for this kind of approach. Project Office has looked into it and we need to trust them and be supportive."
  • And when the engineer explains the current approach is "just really bad engineering": "That might be, but I can't afford to worry about that. My job is to make sure the project follows this plan from start to finish. At this point in the project this is where we need to be and it's where we are."
  • "I was in the military for 15 years and I can tell you flat-out, this is not how you get things done."

The video may be weakly acted - it stars actual NASA employees - but the story line is barely fictionalized. A closing title screen warns:

The scripts of the NASA scenes used in this depiction are not fictional. They are based on actual events. They are real.

Thomas's team created the video as part of a management retreat to address why innovation is blocked at NASA. The release of the video on YouTube shows an interest in some greater transparency at the agency, Thomas told NPR.

Thomas says he initially wasn't sure how his video would be received. "Because these are, after all, fairly sensitive issues and they're important issues. I have to say I'm very gratified by the upper management of the agency who made a point that this should go public so that people could see it."

The big point of the video - and the one most troubling to space expert Howard McCurdy - is that the managers are not interested in the engineer's technical arguments, only in meeting their process goals.

"That's not the kind of agency you would like to have running rocket programs," says McCurdy. "It might be OK for Social Security check disbursement, but it sure isn't going to be good for rocket science."

At the end of the video, the engineer has moved onto a job at Google, where her manager stops her when she apologizes for talking to other groups about another great new idea.

Why on earth would I object to that? As I see it, my responsibility is to work for you. You know what, we could probably sell this idea to NASA. And if you need a new computer to work on this, I can get that for you. And, you know what? I don't even care if it's a Mac or PC."

When she responds by asking her manager to go with her to talk to management, he says: "Now why on earth would I do that? You can go by yourself. I trust you."

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