I recently took a fascinating training course on Opening up your Organization to Innovation. The generally agreed-upon definition of innovation in the class came from Paul Trott: “Innovation is not a single action but a total process of interrelated sub processes. It is not just the conception of a new idea, nor the invention of a new device, nor the development of a new market. The process is all these things acting in an integrated fashion.” Developing an ecosystem, if you will, where fresh ideas and perspectives brew a technology push and a market pull at just the right moments to increase the awesome across the board. As we delved into what that meant for our groups and organizations, we quickly saw how many facets and connotations these ideas had - and how different they could be in context.
The amount of available material on innovation at NASA is plainly overwhelming. [NASA powers innovation that creates new jobs, new markets, and new technologies.] (Absolutely.) [We talk about ways NASA encourages and sometimes discourages innovation.] (It can be true. Check out the video linked at the end.) Most people think about spin offs and technology innovations, Tang and memory foam and a number of other items (some of which NASA had nothing to do with, by the way.) Then there are cool projects like Summer of Innovation and Innovation Pavilions and early-stage innovation development. All valuable, vital efforts and products that make up the fabric of NASA’s mission to pioneer the future.
But what does innovation mean for us?
As we noted in our reflection following the International Space Apps Challenge: “Innovation at NASA often reveals itself as a single advancement in a specific technology. The challenge then lies in reliably repeating the act of this advancement. We believe that innovative practices are the key to creating and discovering state-of-the-art technology. [We] sought to bridge the gap between innovative technology, and its practice.
“In business and government, there currently exists a set of techniques for developing new products that has been carried over from the industrial age: a large team is pulled together, the budget is established, a business model or project plan is created, a detailed product road map is developed and rolled out to a user base in phases. This process has proven itself many times over and is especially important when building an expensive rocket – the tiniest error could yield catastrophic failure. Much technological advancement has been made through this process. However, these time-tested methods of management do not lend well to seasons of uncertainty. Innovation, on the other hand, thrives in those seasons.”
We’re certainly in a season of uncertainty - and it’s our commitment to lean forward into that time and cultivate the new ideas and approaches that come in this season. The way we see it, innovation is grounded in curiosity. Asking the questions what’s on the other side of that? or what would happen if? opens new frontiers for us and makes new approaches possible. Exploring where ideas take you and what technology can do can create answers - and futures - where they may not have existed before.
What we do about it:
How does the idea of innovation as curiosity shape the work we do at open.NASA? There are five keys to our approach to innovation in NASA’s policy, technology, and culture.
We are committed to openness as the starting point.
In a culture that often silos organizations, divides territories, and protects ideas, [we believe that transparency, collaboration and participation are vital to creating change].
The open source mindset transfers us from the innovation-resistant Not Invented Here attitude to Proudly Found Elsewhere. The invent-it-ourselves model is generally not sustainable, and it is inarguably true that the best ideas for any organization are often found outside of it. In the information age, I have to look for the best ideas regardless of where they come from and find ways to apply them in my context.
Without openness, this multidirectional flow of ideas is all but impossible.
We look to build extremely diverse and agile teams.
Steve Jobs wrote in 1996: “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Instead of filling a slot, we want to develop a person. In our experience the former might get the job done, but the latter accomplishes the mission – and they do that with “a lot of dots to connect.” They might be designers, technologists, teachers, scientists, developers or any other number of things. We currently have backgrounds in business administration, computer science, aerospace engineering, languages and cultures, interaction design, public policy, and biotechnology - and that diversity enables exponentially more robust problem solving. I have heard our JSC Center Director share many times about how the astronaut corps changed when it went from mostly military fighter pilots to including doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and others who were trained differently - and brought a different perspective to an issue.
We focus on removing obstacles to innovation.
There are a number of real obstacles, including funding, tech transfer constraints, and lack of freedom to collaborate (usually due to well-intentioned regulations). We spend the time learning what the regulations are and how to apply them appropriately, searching for funding alternatives, creating alternative opportunities for collaboration. We work in collaborative spaces, approaching everything from facilities to meeting structure and knowledge management with flexibility.
It can be frustrating. But it’s totally worth it.
We are committed to opportunities for mass collaborations.
Innovative organizations don’t work in isolation. One of the hardest things about working in government is that it’s often hard to collaborate with others outside government; you have to know what you are going to do in order to put agreements in place to do it – which is often antithetical to the kind of creative work we want to encourage. We are a small team and can’t possibly have all the experiences in the world.
Tapping into others’ experience and expertise, though, is something we can do. Mass collaboration is the engagement of a broad group of diverse participants in collective action toward a specific outcome. Government, private companies, community initiatives and non-profit organizations are all experimenting with creating value for themselves and their stakeholders through mass collaboration. With hackathons, crowd-sourced data analysis, wiki communities, open platform development and crowd-funded enterprises becoming more commonplace, mass collaboration is no longer a novel experiment. It is an essential engagement tool already being utilized effectively across the world in directly mission-relevant efforts.
Open.NASA is focused on making these mass collaboration opportunities as available and as effective as possible for NASA and our core mission needs.
We are committed to telling the story.
Lee Iacocca famously said that “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” Telling the story has to be a priority - especially in times of uncertainty. We spend time asking questions and cultivating new ideas - and then writing and speaking and storytelling everywhere we can.
As Walt Disney noted, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” We’re following Curiosity across Mars to see what we can see, and I’m pretty sure it’s more than we can yet imagine.
What about the next planet? And the next solar system? And the next generation?
What does innovation mean for you and for your organization?
[NASA powers innovation that creates new jobs, new markets, and new technologies.]: http://www.nasa.gov/50th/innovation/ [We talk about ways NASA encourages and sometimes discourages innovation.]: http://wiki.nasa.gov/cm/blog/waynehalesblog/posts/post_1237212199973.html [we believe that transparency, collaboration and participation are vital to creating change]: http://open.nasa.gov/plan/framework/