July 30, 2010 — Vol. 3, Issue 7
Message from the Academy Director
Change Management and Adaptive Challenges
What do we mean when we talk about change management?
Change is an inevitable part of the life of an organization. Regardless of why it happens, it is always difficult and painful for many people.
One metaphor that's helpful for understanding change in an organizational context comes from evolutionary biology. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership
, Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alex Grashow recall that humans have been practicing adaptation for millennia:
"Our early ancestors' process of adaptation to new possibilities and challenges has continued over the course of written history with the growth and variation in scope, structure, governance, strategy, and coordination of political and commercial enterprise. So has the evolution in understanding the practice of managing those processes, including in our lifetimes what we call adaptive leadership."
They go on to define adaptive leadership as "the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive," noting that they use the term "thrive" as an evolutionary biologist would when describing the three characteristics of a successful adaptation: "1) it preserves the DNA essential for the species' continued survival; 2) it discards (re-regulates or rearranges) the DNA that no longer serves the species' current needs; and 3) it creates new DNA arrangements that give species the ability to flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments."
This concept of thriving is the essence of change management. Core values and practices remain intact, while the organization modifies or closes out activities that no longer match current needs, and develops new ones to meet current and anticipated future needs.
Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow suggest that organizations typically encounter one of two types of issues: technical problems and adaptive challenges. With a technical problem, the problem definition is clear, the solution is clear, and process takes place through established lines of authority. Adaptive challenges are altogether different. Both the problem definition and the solution require learning, and the primary decision-making takes place at the stakeholder level.
NASA currently faces an adaptive challenge. It has faced them before, and it has thrived. Doing so again will require learning across the enterprise.
When NASA has gone through periods of transformation and rigorous self-examination in the past, the Academy has served as a change agent by facilitating learning through professional development activities. The precursor to today's NASA Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership, the Program and Project Management Initiative, was established in 1988 as part of NASA's response to the Challenger accident. The focus was on ensuring that the workforce retained fundamental knowledge about NASA's project management practices.
A decade later, in the aftermath of the back-to-back failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin made it clear that he expected the Academy to find a way to support teams, not just individuals. It was a wake-up call that helped set the Academy on its present course. Similarly, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in January 2002 that looked at the Mars failures found "fundamental weaknesses in the collection and sharing of lessons learned agency-wide." This spurred us to expand the scope of our knowledge sharing efforts.
After the Columbia accident in 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that "NASA's current organization...has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization." The Academy increased its support to project and engineering teams and looked for new ways to address communications, organizational learning, and technical excellence.
In short, all of the Academy's core initiatives came about in response to change initiatives that demanded learning.
Unlike some of the examples above, the adaptive challenge NASA faces today is not driven by failure. Like the transition from Apollo to Shuttle, it is the result of changes in the political, social, economic, and technological context in which the agency operates. As a government organization, the agency's mission has always been shaped by stakeholders in the White House and Congress in response to the world around us. This is as true today as it was in the age of the "Space Race" between the Soviet Union and the United States. As the new national space policy notes, the space age began as a race between two superpowers for security and prestige. Today, the benefits of space activities are ubiquitous in everyday life, and the space community includes increasing numbers of nations and organizations around the globe.
A new challenge is here. It's time to thrive.