Building teams at NASA: it's not rocket science

Wednesday - 8/4/2010, 2:11pm EDT

Dr. Charles Pellerin

Click to hear the conversation

Download mp3

There are a ton of leadership and project management books on the market. There are not many of them based on a career in the Federal government; and there are fewer still that have been written literally by rocket scientists. The man who launched the Hubble Telescope, among a total of 12 satellites for NASA is one of the latest entries into the leadership field.

Dr. Charles Pellerin, author of "How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft-Skills for Scientists, Engineers, Project Teams, and their Leaders," told me his career was sailing along for many years until he met his biggest challenge. "I found myself running a billion-dollar program with $2 billion of support services - the [NASA] Astrophysics Division. Everything was going well. I launched 11 satellites; they all worked fine. The twelfth one was arguably the biggest scientific screw-up in history, which was launching Hubble Space Telescope with a flawed mirror. And if things weren't bad enough, when the Failure Review Board reported to Congress how we spent 15 years and $1.7 billion to build a telescope that wouldn't work, they named it a leadership failure, and I was the leader of the program."

But that experience set Dr. Pellerin on a course toward a project management system that he says can improve any organization, no matter what they do. "When you read what happens with every technical failure, every system failure, every space failure, you find it's always a social shortfall," Dr. Pellerin told me. The assessments he developed to fill those shortfalls are brief - he claims they can give you a read on where your team stands in 15 minutes. Those assessments are available free at Dr. Pellerin's web site, www.4-dsystems.com.

Dr. Pellerin explained the four dimensions in the 4-D system, and explained why the system works. "Business books don't work. If business books worked, our workplaces wouldn't be such messes. The reason is that all that matters in the end is behavioral change, and intellectual learning is a very poor stimulant for behavioral change. But assessments are very powerful because they bring your attention to [other] people's perceptions of your behaviors, or your team's perceptions of behavioral norms."

The book was written, Dr. Pellerin told me, in a way that would speak to the manner of receiving information that's common in the scientific community. We discussed how the jargon of a particular field can be used by managers in that field to convey ideas that aren't native to an area of expertise, but are critical for success, like management best practices.

We also talked about ways Dr. Pellerin is applying the techniques of the 4-D system to other types of life situations. You can hear the entire conversation by clicking the audio link. You can read more about the book "How NASA Builds Teams: Mission Critical Soft-Skills for Scientists, Engineers, Project Teams, and their Leaders" by clicking here.