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The thermocline of innovation (NASA, again)

January 30, 2009 2 Comments

I have written about the thermocline of truth, a phenomenon I have witnessed several times in large IT projects where the true status of the project (usually not good) gets blocked at a certain layer of management, slowly moving up the management chain and usually reaching the top just weeks before the scheduled release date.  Not long ago, I had a brief note here about the thermocline of truth as it applies to NASA projects, pointing readers to a post by Rand Simberg at the ever-excellent Transterrestrial Musings.

Now, and again courtesy of Rand Simberg, comes this brilliant video, made recently by frustrated workers within NASA to show how efforts to innovate and improve a troubled project (can you say “Ares”, boys and girls?)  get blocked by middle managers:

Simberg actually pointed to a post by Wayne Hale, a long-time NASA manager, on an official NASA website blog. Hale felt that many of these problems had already been addressed and was surprised (or Simberg put it, “shocked, shocked”) to find them still pervasive at NASA:

Recently I had a couple of events which affected my thinking on this.  I have been out of the Shuttle Program manager job for almost a year now and a trusted coworker just a week ago told me that people in his organization had been prevented from giving me important alternative choices for some program choices that occurred a couple of years ago.  This was staggering. It was happening right in front of me and I was totally unaware that people – who I trusted, who I hoped would trust me – kept their lips sealed because somebody in their middle management made it clear to them that speaking up would not be good.


About two weeks ago an activity that Mike Coats started at JSC had an all day report out period.  The Inclusion and Innovation Council was to propose ways to improve innovation at NASA.  Various teams reported out, including one team of young employees who has the task to talk about the barriers to innovation at NASA — specifically at JSC.

The video attached was their result.  I found it extraordinarily funny and not at all funny.  These young people have obviously found themselves in situations RECENTLY in which managers at various levels applied sociological and psychological pressures to keep them from bringing ideas forward.

I am convinced that if we asked the managers who were the models for this little morality play whether they stifled dissent or welcomed alternate opinions, they would respond that they were welcoming and encouraging.  Probably because they have that self image.

But actual behavior, not inaccurate self perception, is what we really need.

Watch the video, read Hale’s post, and then ask yourself: how many of these problems affect innovation and product development in both organizational and commercial IT development groups? ..bruce..

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

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  1. Aziz Shamim says:

    The video has been made private.

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