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Bill Gerstenmaier on the DC Variable

Status Report From: NASA Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership
Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011

image Bill Gerstenmaier offered his perspective on how to work within the political context of Washington.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of Space Operations, stood in front of a screen displaying an image of Capitol Hill with the International Space Station (ISS) in the background, which he said represented two things he'd come to know and love. He challenged the audience, especially its non-Washington members, to better understand what he called "the DC variable."

Gerstenmaier began with his version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: technical excellence, safety culture, information flow, flight rationale, mission success. He then noted that stakeholder support grounds all of these elements. "Without that stakeholder piece underpinning all of these, we will not get to mission success," he said.

Gerstenmaier continued, noting that, "even defining the term 'stakeholder' is pretty tough." NASA's stakeholders are a diverse group that includes: the Department of Defense, the aerospace industry, National Science Foundation, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, the White House, National Research Council, Congress, and the public, to name a few. With such a diverse group, NASA' s attempts to build consensus are complicated by the need for different messages for each stakeholder. "This is really what we're struggling with today."

"Do our stakeholders understand how difficult the things are that we do?" he asked. "Our goal has got to be for NASA to step back technically and realize what we really want to go do, take the best inputs from this diverse group, and build a plan that we can then show to everyone else," he said. "If we stay in a 'react' mode, where we are reacting continually to the stakeholders...We, NASA, have to take this diverse input, listen to it to the best of our ability and build a plan that we can then start taking forward...We will have to craft the best plan we can--it will not be a perfect plan--but put the best plan we can together and put all of these pieces together and go and try to execute it."

Dramatic changes in information and news circulate through blogs, and social media has impacted NASA greatly. While the initial reaction may be to control these outlets, Gerstenmaier has taken a different approach. It has not been uncommon for him to finish a Flight Readiness Review for the shuttle and have a report out about it before leaving the building. Instead of suppressing communication within the reviews, he has invited his public affairs officer to attend and tweet updates. Doing this has enabled him to tell a better NASA story and actually stay in front of the blogs. "Instead of trying to slow down communication, recognize that communication is diverse and fast. How can you now participate in it and use it to your advantage?"

An audience member voiced a concern about non-technical people making technical decisions for NASA. This is a challenge, Gerstenmaier admitted, but NASA can make an effort to stay in front of it. "You have to listen to them, but then you have to figure out a way to communicate to them in their own language," said Gerstenmaier. "You need to know your audience and who you're talking to." He emphasized the need to think about the real driver behind what they are trying to accomplish. "If we come in and we just expect them (non-technical stakeholders) to know exactly the way we're talking from our perspective, it won't happen."

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