Given the complexity of projects today, the limits of hindsight, and the human inability to predict the future, is strategy a waste of time?">
The International Space Station can be seen as a small object in upper left of this image of the moon in the early evening Jan. 4 in the skies over the Houston area flying at an altitude of 390.8 kilometers (242.8 miles).
Credit: NASA / Lauren Harnett (Click image for full size.)
Given the complexity of projects today, the limits of hindsight, and the human inability to predict the future, is strategy a waste of time?
In an organization like NASA, the role of strategy is to provide a critical link between policy and execution. The White House, in consultation with Congress, establishes a direction for NASA: "These are the nation's priorities for our civil space program. Go do these things. Here's the money you can spend." A simplification, for sure, but those are the very basic contours in which NASA operates as a government agency. Strategy is the game plan to make things happen.
That's the blueprint for how it's supposed to work. The reality is always less straightforward. National priorities change, sometimes rapidly. Programs get cut or canceled. Our partners and suppliers also operate in their own dynamic political contexts, which can add to the complexity of our programs and projects. Technology development is a double-edged sword: either our technologies are not sufficiently mature when we begin a project, or occasionally they leapfrog a generation between proposal and launch, creating a different kind of havoc.
On top of all these risks and uncertainties, we humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future. The sudden end of the Cold War in 1989 surprised an entire generation of analysts who studied geopolitics. The same has proven true with financial markets time and again; over time, the vast majority of successful professional investors are lucky, not good. (See Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, featured in last month's Academy Bookshelf, to learn more about the science behind this.) We also reason by historical analogy, which leads to the tendency to plan for the last war.
So since our environment is so complex and our ability to comprehend it is so limited, can we really achieve anything through strategy?
NASA has had different strategies at different times in its history. The most storied, of course, is the one to deal with sending a man to the moon and back within a decade. Consider just some of the moving parts that had to be elaborately sequenced: a series of increasingly complex Mercury and Gemini missions; decisions on how to reach the moon and which vehicles could get the job done (See "A Strategic Decision: Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous"); the Ranger and Surveyor missions that had to be flown to understand the lunar environment; and of course the design and development of the Apollo capsule (with two modules, as it turned out) and life support systems necessary for the astronauts.
Coming at the end of the Cold War as budgets were contracting across the federal government, the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” approach represented another kind of game plan. Significant advances in computing power, electronics, and off-the-shelf technologies offered new efficiencies that could be incorporated into mission design and development. In a departure from the agency’s previous focus on expensive flagship missions like the Hubble Space Telescope, Administrator Dan Goldin saw an opportunity for NASA to fly a greater number of smaller, cheaper missions by accepting more risk. There was an open acknowledgement that some missions might fail in the process, but the overall result would be a more efficient agency. There have been lots of debates about the pros and cons of the “Faster Better Cheaper” strategy, but whatever its merits, it represented a clear shift in strategy for the agency in a time of transition.
Our strategy for human space exploration in the post-Shuttle era represents a similar point of departure from past practices. We’ve embraced a transition to new forms of collaboration with international and commercial partners to reach low-Earth orbit while undertaking the development of a heavy launch vehicle that will carry humans deeper into space. We’re still in the early days of implementing that strategy; its effectiveness will not be known with certainty for years. One thing is for certain, though: operating without a strategy is the real fool’s errand.