What’s Different about NASA–and Why You Should Care

NASA may share similar problems with the Air Force, Navy, and Army, but several key differences are worth learning from, not just for the Department of Defense but for large companies as well. I’m now understanding that all large organizations, including non-Defense-related businesses, share similar organizational challenges, but NASA is doing some things right–or trying to–and therefore, it’s worth learning from and copying where possible.

This week, I was honored to participate in a two-day workshop on NASA’s Innovation Ecosystem and its continuous improvement. This wasn’t really about innovative Contracting tools but more about mindset and relationship building internally and externally. The attendees read like a Who’s Who of experts in and out of NASA, each with a unique and beneficial perspective. It was different from other innovation workshops and conferences I’ve attended because they dug deep, exposed some uncomfortable but honest problems, and came up with useful, usable solutions that could be implemented right away or could be begun to be implemented in case of a larger fight or a longer higher-approval process to overcome. In others words, this wasn’t just an exercise but a serious attempt to make positive changes. It was all about taking action, not the oft-seen ho-hum reaction to a push from above to study a problem and then pat ourselves on the back that we’re doing okay because we’ve had a long history of being the best out there when we could all do better.

Warning: Digression! Wouldn’t it be cool if key players from the Air Force, Navy, Army, NASA, DARPA, etc, plus from major commercial high-tech businesses got together for a 2-day forum to share their biggest problems and real-life solutions so they can apply other organizations’ wins to their own situations? Without judgment, without ego, without a scarcity mindset–just genuine sharing and leveraging? Of course, a large organization has to acknowledge its problems honestly before its leaders can address them and resolve them. That’s probably the hardest part, even harder than fixing them. Being honest with ourselves when we know that showing any weakness can be used against us–by taxpayers, by Congress, by adversaries, by the general population.

NASA Difference #1: Lifers

I heard a few tales of people retiring with 60 years’ experience and that 50 was not uncommon. I did a double-take. My background is as an Air Force civilian, and I’ve known of a handful of retirees with 40 years behind them and I could probably name them for you, given a few minutes to think about it. I would’ve been one of them if I’d been allowed to do as much Rapid Acquisition as I’d wanted. The idea of being a lifer as a Federal employee fascinated me because way too many employees are just trying to get through the day, including the majority of GS-15 equivalents I know. It’s a job, not a life. The difference with NASA is the passion so many of the employees have. They love the mission, they love their contribution, they forget to work regular hours, they push themselves hard to be part of something bigger that has such an extreme impact on the future. It’s that passion that drives most NASA employees to never leave.

I’ve seen this passion only one other place–with SOCOM. If I could have continued to do Rapid Acquisition to support Special Ops, I would’ve been an Air Force lifer or died at my desk trying. Sustainment contracts just never had that fire in the belly that I needed to make me both giddy and determined every day, so I admit that part of that passion is for the mission and the folks on the front lines and that’s not possible for every job out there.

But here’s the insight: both NASA and SOCOM are more tolerant of risk because what they do–their mission is high risk. It’s not moving paper around or putting something in inventory to be used in a decade if we’re unlucky. It’s the risk that they take on every day, with the understanding that your best efforts can fail so you’d better fail fast and get to the next solution. Because they take on so much risk, innovation is necessary, and that innovation is usually hand-in-hand with true passion for the work. Risk breeds innovation.

So how does everyone else instill passion and innovation into employee workload? You can’t mandate it–“Thou shalt be innovative today!” But you can allow space for it and encourage it, set it free and let it soar.

NASA Difference #2: Youth Magnet

Usually when I hear Government organizations talk about the next generations, it’s not kind. That may be true of big corporations as well, but it’s not true of NASA. At least, not once in the two days there did I hear it. I don’t think I ever heard the Air Force (not in Acquisition, anyway) mention Gen Z. Almost every time we Blue Hairs and Gray Beards gathered to make leadership choices, millennials were disparaged, ridiculously so.

My favorite example of how my Acquisition colleagues in leadership positions felt about the then-youngest generation in the workforce is from a meeting of division chiefs where I defended telework and how it might persuade some of our too-mobile interns to stick around after we spent three years training them. One of the more open-minded chiefs disagreed, saying to me that millennials were “computer smart” and could game the system and goof off instead of doing actual work. He actually said to me that millennials could probably train their cats to hit the space bar on their laptop to indicate their “green light” was on and they were at their desk working instead of secretly sunning at the beach. Let me reiterate: he actually said that. So out of touch. So very out of touch.

As for Gen Z? Non-existent.

But NASA recognizes the future and the need to make sure we have the best and brightest interested in working for the Federal Government. They are vying for the affections of future scientists and engineers. They are actively looking for ways to attract Gen Z so that NASA will have future employees who rock, who want to be the next lifers because they’re making that big of a difference.

NASA may have a “cool factor” others do not, but I have never heard a Government organization be more positive about the “kids” and bringing them into the fold. It was…refreshing.

NASA Difference #3: Leadership Is More People-Focused

I suppose the other two differences are related to this one. If you have an organization full of lifers and you are intentional about bringing a 5th generation into your workforce, then Leadership must be more people-focused than usual. That’s not to say they aren’t mission-focused. The two are not mutually exclusive.

NASA Leadership may not be perfect (I don’t work there, so I’m not qualified to give that opinion), but I do see them trying to make NASA a good place to work in a way that I don’t see in many other places. Non-NASA folks can get offended by that statement or they can figure out how to copy that effort. No need to feel jealousy over it either–jealousy is simply the heart saying, “I want that, too!” and figuring out how to get it. NASA leaders know–my opinion–that they need improvement but they are actually doing a lot already. My last organization was one where colleagues were bailing to work for GSA via full-time telework so they could stay in their chosen career fields without relocating the family because they felt they had little to no influence on their own work. And yet NASA has… NASA has lifers. It’s worth asking why and trying to emulate that. It’s not a negative to share ways to gain employees who want to be lifers–there are enough of the next generation to go around and we are the losers if we can’t figure that one out.

What I did see was NASA leaders of various levels take the workshop results seriously, and I heard quite a few take recommended solutions and nod and say, “Yes, we can do that.” Or “Yes, I’ll start writing up the case to have my leadership take the fight up the chain.” Or “Yes, I can do that when I get back to my office next week.” Not once did I hear from a NASA leader say, “Well, we need to study that more” or “Let’s slow down” or “That’s a risk I need to protect our employees from.”

What I heard most when a brain-stormed, crowd-sourced solution was offered was, “Yeah…yeah, we can do that.”

Can other large organizations copy this workshop and learn from each other’s solutions? Could I get a “Yeah…yeah, we can do that”?

c 2018 Lorna Tedder

Lorna Tedder


  • Rapid Acquisition Consultant
  • Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
  • Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
  • Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
  • Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
  • Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
  • 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
  • Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.
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