Why no management lessons from NASA?

Scientist and science writer David Grinspoon just posted a quick Facebook update about how well NASA works. He’s at JPL with the Mars Curiosity team and posted this:

After a day spent at JPL experiencing the Curiosity science and operations teams in action, my thought was – I wish the entire world worked like this. The cooperative spirit, quick, intelligent collective problem solving, efficient teamwork, good humor, lack of egos and group striving for common goals – it is all so impressive and inspiring. I don’t want our country to be run like a business – I want it to be run like a spacecraft team.

I was fortunate enough to be at both the launch of the rocket and in one of the VIP rooms during the landing. During the roughly 8 month period in between, I watched the video describing the complexity of the landing at least 20 times, showing it to friends and just re-watching it. It’s staggeringly complex, what they did, just to land the thing. The rover itself is a marvel. It has a sample collector, grinder, laser, panorama camera, three different spectrometers, a microscope – and it can drive around a surface without real-time human input (ie, steering).

This is an incredible achievement – even allowing for budget and schedule misses. And now, they’re digging in and processing the data, assigning the rover tasks on a regular basis.

When Mission Control got confirmation of touchdown, the team went all high-five and hugs, and pointed at each other in tribute to the achievement of their common goal. They looked and acted like a team: individuals at the top of their respective games, having achieved something incredibly difficult and proud of their role in it, self-aware that no one of them was the main person. During the press conference, each of the team leads (all men, though there are plenty of women in senior roles)) began their comments by praising someone else.

Mohawk Guy, Bobak Ferdowsi, a flight director on the mission, became an internet sensation for his hair and being a nerd hottie. He answered the twitter-mania (which included several marriages proposals, a tumblr, and lots of swooning) with a quiet thank you and a back to work:

We should start looking at this team, and other massive public projects, for lessons. It’s time to buck the trend of bashing the public sector and fetishizing free markets. NASA has humbly taken our breath away – with a team of committed, well-trained, highly self-aware nerds.

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