NASA Program Management: Case Study in Making the Pie Bigger

One of my colleagues and friends at NASA was a young manager who had recently been promoted and was responsible for growing programs and projects within his assigned discipline. I will call him Jeff. He noticed, however, that there were about 9 colleagues in similar positions across this unit that had similar roles. Most were older and experienced and but had fallen into a trap of consistent and predictable behaviors.

Jeff observed that when new opportunities for programs and projects came up, that it took forever to get the team established. It seemed that these program managers would ‘fight to the death’ over who would get top billing. Jeff noticed that the difference between having 50% of a program and 51% was huge in the mind of these experienced managers. It seems that they were trying to optimize control and credit rather than the health of the units they led.

So Jeff developed and executed a plan in this environment to get his unit healthy. He chose the most difficult and vocal of these managers, we’ll call Todd, and developed a new program with him. When it came time for discussing the distribution of resources and control the Todd ‘out-maneuvered’ my Jeff and ended up with 60% of the program. Or so the experienced manager believed.

After signing the program, Todd dropped all of his efforts on the 51% control projects he was pursuing and put his full effort on developing and closing the new 60% program, which he did in a matter of weeks.  His skillful expertise, now focused, short-circuited the normal 1 year or more new initiative process within NASA. Jeff watched on the sidelines and was amazed at the skill and alacrity that Todd used to maneuver through the wickets and get the project funded.

Shortly after Todd got Jeff to agree to the share program split, Todd bragged to his colleagues that not only did he have a new program, but he had taken advantage of the new guy Jeff, getting 60% of the program. He was quite proud of himself.

This had the desired effect, as now it seemed there was a waiting list of program managers wanting to work with Jeff. Each time they would design a program together, Jeff would get ‘out-maneuvered’ and give up about 60% of the program. Inevitably, the older, wiser manager would drop his other projects and apply his full skills to making the new program successful.

By the end of the year, it was quite an interesting situation. During the individual performance assessments, it was observed that 5 program managers had cut through the red tape and gotten new programs launched for which they had 60% of the control and resources.

On the other hand, Jeff had accomplished the unbelievable. In about 1 year he had been involved in launching 5 programs garnering about 40% of the resources of 5 different programs. His unit was now extremely healthy as his unit’s funding had grown several times faster than any other unit.  Jeff also came out ahead because he had the bandwidth to execute the programs.   It seems that each of the new programs was being led by an experienced manager.

However, NASA management was so impressed with his unit’s growth, they promoted Jeff.  This resulted in most of those experienced program managers working for him. But, in reality, they were already working for him, even if they didn’t realize it.

My colleague understood the value in sharing portions of the proverbial pie to gain the benefit of growing the radius squared. 

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