Being Competitive: Lessons from NASA, Part 2

Before going back to the topic at hand, I want to bring up a book by Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, focusing on the natural path of every company: an inspired start to a spectacular death. The death of such “mature companies” is often caused by their susceptibility to falling in the trap of a disruptive technology. First, the new technology looks useless to the “mature company” – its characteristic performance is inferior to current products, and it is often significantly cheaper. Thus, adapting that technology would undercut the market of the “mature company”. In fact, this new technology is not really a good fit for the market that the “mature company” is in. So, nobody sees it coming. All of a sudden, the technology grows, money comes in, and a new market is opened. Fueled by this tremendous momentum, a new company, or even a bunch of new companies, are breaking into the old market and they are almost unstoppable. Key examples for such disruptive changes are from main-frame computers to personal computers, from hard-discs to flash-drives, from laptops to smart phones etc. That’s how competitiveness works in the market place in which new technologies can get their shot!

So, why is this process not working for NASA? Why are we not thinking of NASA as an innovative hotbed anymore? Why are we still flying the shuttle?

There are a lot of people pondering these questions, which, when we think about them, really address one and the same problem. I truly hope that the new US President and his team are worrying about this, because its answer is at the heart of NASA’s leadership tomorrow and US leadership in space.

I don’t want to get into a policy discussion here. If I was asked this question over a cool drink, I would focus on three issues that are at the heart of this issue: 1) the relative unimportance of NASA in the national scope; 2) erratic political forces that take over when 1) occurs, leading to bizarre conclusions such as NASA’s “ten healthy center philosophy”, floods of earmarks etc; 3) the fact that aerospace industry is dominated by government contracts which tends to turn the best company into deadly bureaucracies. Some of the aspects of the problem are covered in a recent op-ed piece by my friend Alan Stern.

Instead, I want to focus on the opportunities that are offered by universities and graduating students to address these issues. And, I believe, that US universities and particularly their graduates are the solution to this puzzle.  Universities had a formidable role in the early days of the space program, and since then their role has shrunk tremendously. Some of this has been self-inflicted. Key universities decided that focusing on string theory is more relevant than observing the wonders of the cosmos. As a theorist, by the way, string theories are great. You never run the risk of being proven wrong. It almost has some aspects of religion…

The reason for an enhanced role of universities is their ability to understand the importance of evolutionary progress through failure and improvements of approach. This addresses a fundamental problem we have in the US space program: the absolute refusal to accept risks and possible failure. NASA gets bad news when they try anything new and fail – anywhere. The best sign for this is the so-called New Millennium Program. This is a program designed to advance technologies from the laboratory to space, pushing the envelope. I still remember the press release of one of the first space missions from that program: “of the twenty-some technologies, all of them were successful”. Every mission has been almost the same – total success. There are two explanations for this: 1) the program is not pushing the envelope enough, or, 2) we don’t hear about things that don’t work. After talking to some program managers, I think 1) is the more likely explanation.

I believe universities can make a significant impact because they can challenge paradigms, and because they can educate change agents.

Challenging paradigms: Research and educational programs at the University of Michigan can become the seeding ground for novel approaches and technologies for which we challenge paradigms and develop use-cases for new technologies and system approaches. I personally have found the most intriguing work at universities to be collaborations with industry or with some of the many excellent scientists and engineers that are still at NASA. In these collaborations, we notice the strengths of university partners to dig deeper, question, and finally, invent.

But, even for university researchers, tackling old paradigms is difficult:  It’s a lot easier to think of a new muffler rather than developing new engine technology that does not require any mufflers anymore. Many professors find it easier to bring in funding to do small increments. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but it should not define us. We are defined by the impact, defined in the broadest sense. What does our research cause to happen – fundamental new knowledge? New industry approaches? New products?

I work at the University of Michigan because I have many friends and colleagues here who feel empowered to go for it and challenge paradigms, especially of big industries like aerospace and automotive. This is the one advantage we have over universities almost everywhere on Earth. I really love the feeling of doing something truly important. It’s the same feeling I have when I walk towards the top of a mountain. There is a long steep way to go, and it’s tough. But, the sky is opening up every step!

I have one additional, possibly controversial comment. I believe that high-priority challenges require different ways of operation at our universities. Generally, at research universities, we do work in an operational mode which I would describe as “each professor is king”, where strategy and funding are controlled by individual principal investigators; they also determine their schedule, or lack thereof, their personnel, and their interactions with other teams. I don’t think we would hurt our overall creativity if we developed operational modes in which we boost high priority research. We would develop management structures that combine and coordinate 5-10 professors and their core teams from all over campus. They could even move into a collaborative space until they truly know and trust each other. They would build a single team and agree on a relatively aggressive schedule and deliver products. They would create a team and an atmosphere which would be goal-oriented and a heck of a lot faster!

Change agents: Even with such changes, our students are our best chance to truly make a difference. We have these students on campus for just a few years, and – whether we like it or not – we do affect how they go about their work and lives. I think we will only be successful in launching them into a career as a leader and change agent if we make this a theme of our education. We expect them to invent new engines, not improve mufflers! We want to educate the students with the knowledge and quantitative understanding of the technology space we are in. But, it would be a shame if it stopped there. Our students should know about the big challenge and opportunities of our world around us. Our students should expect to be known as “doers” who get involved.

I don’t think we are credible as professors if we don’t act on challenges and opportunities ourselves. Students should see us struggle with the same challenges. They should learn that it is tough to actually turn an idea into reality, and they should learn how to do that by watching us struggle! We don’t like failure, but it’s a great opportunity for our students to watch us deal with it. We don’t just get knocked on our back. We get back on our feet and keep going.

In summary, competitiveness of NASA has a lot to do with us, university professors, and with the people we educate. The students in our classrooms today will be part of a possibly disruptive change of aerospace industry and space science in the next few decades. And, as a thought-leader, the University of Michigan should be a part of this transition as well, just like it was fifty years ago. Competitiveness is all about people, and that’s where we have our best strengths!

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