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Posted by on Dec 2, 2015

The Learning Organization: Insights from NASA

The Learning Organization: Insights from NASA

NASA, APPELIn my last blog I discussed the findings from a study the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), in conjunction with the Project Management Institute (PMI)® recently published in a white paper, “Improving Program Management in the Federal Government.”   They found acquiring knowledge to develop new skills or improve current skills is important, but it is just one factor in managing the challenges associated with delivering projects successfully. The organization and the context of project management in the organization can directly influence the success of projects.

There are Federal government agencies that have, or are, building organizational program / project management capabilities. One of them is NASA. Their Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL) has been known as a global leader in project management training. I am very familiar with APPEL having assessed their capabilities against other companies that also have formal, structured entities, or “academies” that promote project management competencies. It was no surprise to me when I learned PMI had named APPEL the “best academy in the world” for its project management learning and development.

NASA’s journey to project management excellence was achieved by addressing the human dimension of managing projects. The journey was based on remarkable achievements and agonizing failures. Interestingly, APPEL’s starting point was in realizing project failure was a catalyst for learning.   These failures were opportunities for transforming NASA – first with a focus on individual competency, then to developing teams, and finally to becoming a learning organization.

Building Individual Capability. In response to the Challenger accident, NASA focused on building individual competence. Through research and studies on how individuals learn to do their jobs, they identified four dimensions to personal effectiveness: Ability, Attitude, Assignments and Alliances. APPEL promotes individual professional development by addressing these four dimensions through multiple channels, including:

  • Identifying a career development framework and an integrated competency model for project management and systems engineering
  • Offering a curriculum that includes both core and in-depth courses
  • Sponsoring developmental assignments and hands-on opportunities to help individuals develop their skills

Building High Performance Teams. NASA experienced back-to-back failures with the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. In the aftermath of those setbacks, APPEL was mandated with developing the capability of teams as well as individuals. APPEL’s work with teams has included activities such as workshops focusing on team effectiveness; online assessments of team performance; intensive coaching; and technical support.

Their approach to team building begins with something they call the “project story.” Simply, it is the ongoing conversations about a project. It is the project’s context – how the team thinks and behaves in dealing with both adversity and successful outcomes. The team building approach at NASA focuses on developing the behaviors found in high-performing teams and eliminating those found in teams with poor stories. They use a survey-based assessment tool to help interpret a project team’s context by measuring how often teams and individuals say that they meet eight key behaviors. Post-assessment services include a combination of team workshops, personal coaching, and consultations with experienced practitioners.

Knowledge Services: Building Organizational Capability. Based on several findings in the wake of the Mars failures and the Columbia accident, it was found that NASA had a fundamental deficiency in the collection and sharing of lessons learned across the organization. It was also found that NASA had not demonstrated the characteristic of a “learning organization.” APPEL’s next challenge was not only to establish a means to effectively capture and share lessons learned, but ensure they are being applied towards future projects.

APPEL developed an approach to knowledge sharing that was a blend of practical knowledge about how work gets done at NASA with a theoretical understanding of organizational learning. Their approach is based on four guiding principles:

  • The practitioner knows best – those that do the work have the knowledge
  • Stories are powerful means of sharing knowledge – they stimulate curiosity
  • Project managers should be encouraged to share their knowledge through stories
  • Storytelling could create a community of reflective practitioners

These principles helped shape knowledge sharing strategy. They emphasize the power of telling stories through forums, publications, case studies, and communities of practice that have established a group of practitioners who are reflective and geared towards sharing.

Early on NASA realized that project management had evolved significantly over the past fifty years but methods for developing practitioners had not kept pace. APPEL has helped transform the organization by addressing the human dimension of managing projects and building a culture of learning. In future postings I will continue the discussion of the approach a couple of other Federal government agencies have taken in building organizational project management capabilities.



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