NASA on Knowledge, Mistakes, and . . . Loud Teams

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

I listened to Ed Hoffman, NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer, speak at a PMI event last week.

Mr. Hoffman shared a slide called, “Shared Experience Poll.” Its a universal, if depressing, list.  Any sound familiar? The italics are mine – PMO remedies that really work!

  • Incompatible business strategies
  • Managers support policies aligning to their interests
  • Employeees only do what is necessary to keep the boss happy
  • Projects succeed but fail organisational expectations
    • Above all helped with portfolio management to objectively fund projects according to how they support strategies and way to keep this up to date, also easy visuals to show clear ties from each project to at least one strategy and vice versa.
    • At NASA they avoided linear lists of info, but created visuals to explain where to find knowledge, to appeal to their workforce and how they talk about things.
  • Organisational talent doesn’t know where to find critical knowledge
  • Information is everywhere but knowledge is scarce
    • Above two helped if all projects fit a known project type that then uses commonly named project steps.
  • Adminstratively burdensome processes and procedures
    • Above helped if project management is seen as a service offering, with a sales component that uses feedback to continually simplify project steps that bring a worthwhile return.
    • At NASA they called it knowledge services instead of knowledge management, to reflect intent to help and not control.

 I also loved his recommendation that success criteria go beyond the usual cost, time, budget types. If learning, for example, isn’t on the list, it’s no wonder people won’t capture the lessons learned. Yet we can mostly agree learning is one of the most important outcomes of any project! Consider knowledge sharing as another marker of success. Expressly stating this can go a long way to supporting the collaboration you need. Maybe discovery and innovation needs to make it’s way into your success criteria, or building up individual and team talent. Getting this right helps you get to true success, as well as line up the real expertise you’ll need.

He said its so important to speak the truth at the level of mistakes, as these are what can prevent larger failures. And that the team culture needs to support this. It’s hard because so many smart people are trained to bring solutions, and not problems. You need rules of thumb, heuristics, to convince smart people to bring a problem forward. NASA had “my best mistake” events to help people get in the rhythm of sharing mistakes.

He also talked about failure, the need for it. A benefit to failure is it gives time to learn, sometimes the ONLY time to learn, a chance to get people to talk to each other across their usual silos. He says if he hears, “I don’t have time,” this a show stopper; that you need to make time for this. An executive involved with the Challenger disaster was shown on video, saying, “I just can’t sit there anymore and watch people talk past each other.”

A good PM is at work, he said, if a team makes a lot of noise. Ask is there inclusion, is there respect, are people raising issues? Laughter, arguing, a team able to put up with disruptions . . . these are indicators for success.

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