March 30, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 3
Message from the Academy Director
Universal Principles of Effective Partnerships
Tolstoy wrote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The same holds true for partnerships on NASA missions.
Partnerships are a defining feature of complex projects. Looking at the full range of NASA's missions, partnerships exist along a continuum ranging from simple (relatively routine contractual arrangements with private industry) to multi-dimensional (the most obvious example being the International Space Station). In addition to industry and international partners, science missions led by Principal Investigators often inVolve partnerships with academia or technical research organization such as the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins or the Southwest Research Institute. Industry, academia, and other government space agencies all have different capabilities, incentives, and limitations that shape the nature of our partnerships.
The extent of a partner's inVolvement in a mission can vary widely. Sometimes the role is fairly discrete and compartmentalized. For example, an international partner may develop a single instrument that will fly on a NASA spacecraft and provide shared data, but otherwise the partner may play no part in the design and development of the project. In other cases, a partner organization may be deeply inVolved in all facets of the mission. In short, there is no one-size-fits all definition of a partnership with NASA.
Even so, there are some universal principles about successful partnerships; these are the ways in which happy families are all alike. First, roles and responsibilities are clearly articulated, understood, and respected. This sounds easy, but it crops up time and again as the cause of problems. Part of the reason for this is that roles and responsibilities can change over the course of a project. When they do, it is important for all sides to reaffirm their understanding of the new arrangement. Healthy project teams don't avoid these conversations; they initiate them proactively to prevent misunderstandings before they happen.
Second, inclusion and appreciation are powerful ways of promoting a healthy context in a partnership. When partners know their opinions count and their contribution is valued, they will bend over backwards to help make the mission a success.
One of my favorite stories that illustrates this principle was recounted in the Academy's anthology Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. In "What a Little Barbecue Sauce Will Do," Jerry Madden recalled an international project where a member of his team worked onsite in Germany for a period of years, and others would come over periodically for reviews and important meetings. The Germans were always outstanding hosts to the American teams. To show their appreciation, the NASA team planned an American-style barbecue for their hosts, complete with barbecue sauce imported from the U.S. The party was a big hit with the Germans.
Two weeks later, the NASA team encountered a problem with its electrical harness. The project was one of many in the facility, and it looked like the project would lose a few weeks waiting its turn in line for assistance. But when word reached one of the technicians who had been at the party that the harness belonged to the barbecue team, he said, "Give me the harness. I'll fix it on my lunch hour."
Inclusion and appreciation don't guarantee special treatment — they are not behaviors that we adopt with the hope of getting something in return. Rather, they help to build a sense of dignity, meaning, and purpose. At their core, partnerships are about people working toward a common goal. When we remember that and ask ourselves Golden Rule questions about how we like to be treated, the answers become clear. As Jerry Madden's team demonstrated, a partnership built on mutual respect will generate inclusion and appreciation on its own. Happy families really are all alike.