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NASA engineer: disruptive corporate culture got us to Mars

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Credit Curiosity's successful Mars landing -- as well as others before it -- on a dramatic shift in the way NASA handles challenges, says its chief engineer.

NASA's recent success in landing and deploying the tweeting Curiosity rover on Mars was more than a technical success -- it is the result of opening up the agency to fresh, unconventional thinking.

In a WOBI presentation a few months back (prior to the recent Curiosity landing), Brian Muirhead  chief engineer at NASA, explained how a corporate culture that encouraged disruptive innovation paved the way for a cost-effective and successful Mars landing program.  Corporate culture has long been a key challenge for the space agency -- independent commissions studying the two Shuttle disasters concluded that NASA's insular command-and-control culture led to the oversights that doomed the Challenger and Columbia spacecraft.

It was innovation -- or more appropriately, disruption -- borne of necessity.  NASA's annual budget was shrinking, while the cost of interplanetary travel was growing.  The agency's leaders realized that they could not continue business as usual. Muirhead describes a meeting in which NASA administrator gave Muirhead's team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a tough mandate: take risks, but do not fail. "What would most people do?" Muirhead says. "They would go back to their office, sit down at their computer, and polish up their resume."

Muirhead's team was tasked with sending a spacecraft to Mars within a three-year timeframe -- on a budget of less than $200 million. That's "less of the cost of the movie Titanic," Muirhead recalls.

NASA's approach was to adopt the disruptive technology and business practices espoused by Clayton Christensen, he adds -- finding low-cost ways of meeting underserved or unserved needs. To build such a culture of disruptive innovation, Muirhead advises, first to establish an atmosphere of openness and integrity. "The leaders set the tone. How you model relationships with your team is critical. Everyone will follow that.  If you want high performance and integrity, you need to model openness and honesty."

Encouraging microknowledge -- versus micromanagemet -- will also foster greater innovation, he says. "Everybody hates the micromanager. Microknowledge. is what everybody will get a hold of and will help you when problems show up."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure