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Why You Can’t Innovate at NASA

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A fascinating Youtube video highlights innovation and workflow problems at NASA. Watch the clip to see how employees trapped through compartmentalization hinder the development of bright ideas.

Although it runs for ten minutes, the video conveys a clear message of the suppression of ideas. For further background on the premise, see the the NPR article Astronaut’s Video Satirizes NASA Bureaucracy. Watch and enjoy:

Despite impassioned attempts at explaining her ideas, the NASA engineer hears surprising responses from  upper management that discourage initiative and creativity. Here’s some of the dialog:

Young Engineer: So, I’ve been thinking about this better way to design the spacecraft, and here are some sketches of what I’ve been looking into…

Supervisor: Wow. This is a pretty significant change from the way the project office is doing things.

Another exchange includes the following:

Supervisor: We’ve never done anything like this before. I should also remind you that as a member of this organization we are really only supposed to be working on subsystems.

Young Engineer: Yes, I know, and I’ve considered that, but I think this is really important.

Supervisor: I see. You know, you will be basically telling them that their current approach is flawed.



© Flickr user mightyohm

The video illustrates four fairly common errors organizations make when establishing and engaging processes:

  1. Processes inhibit productivity. In the video, we see an enterprising contractor who’s genuinely trying to improve the final product, only to have established processes slam the door in her face again and again. Does your organization allow processes to get in the way of much needed improvements in their products and services.
  2. Processes that require inefficient use of time. Did you catch the size of the organizational flow chart? Even the length of this parody video captures the inordinate amount of time required within the organization to get an answer to a pretty simple question about improvement. Does your organization have processes that require people to spend time caught up in the flowchart instead of actually being productive?
  3. Processes that discourage innovation and quality control. Organizations that don’t change don’t grow, and organizations that don’t monitor for quality control don’t last. In the video, he contractor’s proposal is aimed at both of these desirable ends. Instead of having her idea considered, vetted or implemented, however, the vines of the process choke it out before it can make a difference. Is your organization giving the difference-makers and quality checkers room to perform these valuable roles?
  4. Cultures that value following the process to the exclusion of desired outcomes. Unfortunately, the conversation between the contractor and the project manager is one that’s all too common within organizations. When presented with her idea for a better design, the PM responds, ” My job is to follow this plan from start to finish.” If that wasn’t clear enough, he states his understanding of his role within the organization: “I’m not responsible for showing an optimal solution.” Organizations that become addicted to process can create a culture where employees are more concerned about what they’re not permitted to do within the process than the actual goal of the organization. That’s a culture of fear that stunts growth, limits productivity, and charts, at best, a flat course for the organization.

This video illustrates exactly the kind of organizational and workflow challenges we address at AccelaWork. Instead of trying to reinvent a whole culture with a top-down reorganization, we focus on engaging with individual workers to find ways of improving efficiency, increasing access, and embracing the contribution of stakeholders.

As we covered in our post about productivity and job loss, change should occur from the bottom up. To quote ourselves: “no one is better positioned than the employee to lead and implement new ideas in their own workflow.” If your company finds this philosophy refreshing, contact us today. Our aim is to assist you and your employees to transform processes so you can be effective, inventive and successful in all your ventures.

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