When rocket science isn’t

When I was on an assistant professor of organization behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the students (about 30% were engineers) complained about the required class on the subject.  They were there to learn how to be captains of industry.  That meant mastering finance, marketing, accounting, and quantitative analysis, not managing people.   Few “got” that the higher up they went, the more dependent they would be on having others actually do the accounting, finance, etc.   Years later, I often run into those same students, saying they wish they had paid more attention to organization behavior.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Now, Charles Pellerin, former head of NASA’s astrophysics division, has written How NASA Builds Teams.  “The core idea of the book is that social contexts drive our behaviors, and hence drive a technical team’s ability to perform or not.”   Inspired by his own experience directing the team that figured out how to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (already in orbit), he went on to look at other events like the Challenger tragedy.  He learned that technical expertise is necessary but not sufficient  for successful projects.  The book is about a system of assessment and training components he developed to help NASA teams improve performance.  Key factors include expressing authentic appreciation, keeping agreements, resisting blaming/complaining, including others as needed,  being committed to the outcome.   It’s not rocket science but having it described and articulated by a Ph.D. in Astrophysics should make it more palatable to engineering types.  It’s an interesting read with links to a website with additional materials and tools.  Too bad this book wasn’t around when I was in the classroom….