The big picture

NASA reduces uncertainty and minimizes risks with project methods





Edward J. Hoffman, Ph.D., is director of the NASA Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL). The Academy provides comprehensive resources in support of project practitioners and teams. Hoffman works with NASA, industry, academia and other government agencies to establish priorities and enhance capabilities in program and project management.


At NASA, project management is our lifeblood. Without it, there'd be no man on the moon, no mission to Mars, no Earth-observing satellites. Everything we do is dictated by the challenges of managing complex projects in an unforgiving and uncertain environment.

NASA’s project management standards flow down through an overarching policy document that establishes high-level guidelines to ensure consistency. A project manager at the beginning of a mission must sign agreements indicating compliance with sound project management principles. But NASA’s project management is not a “follow-the-numbers” exercise. In reality, project practitioners must make daily decisions requiring intuition, creativity and experience.

An organization committed to project excellence strives to create environmental conditions that foster project success. The NASA structure integrates functions aimed directly at project management excellence. NASA’s Independent Program Assessment Office (IPAO) reviews selected projects to ensure rigorous project methodology is in practice. Each NASA field center also has a Systems Management Office (SMO) for support and advice and to observe the health and capability of projects. These functions are intended to provide resources at a corporate and local level for project management.

While NASA prioritizes our project approach, each day brings a new set of challenges. Here, the capability, adaptability and passion of a team will determine success. The Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL) is charged with developing the NASA project community to meet challenges, in advance of need. Driven by what practitioners and project teams need and when they need it, APPL uses a blended learning approach. This reflects NASA’s value to provide a mature curriculum for professional development, coupled with just-in-time development support to meet any project team challenge.

We take special care to expound a systems view of project management so each team member can approach a project at any point in its life cycle and understand how his or her responsibilities link together. Project success depends on the knowledge and capabilities of many disciplines, so it is important to prepare and support the entire team. Competence in project planning, scheduling, managing resources, systems engineering, software and leadership are just some of the ingredients demanded of a prepared project staff.

Because of the level of uncertainty associated with aerospace, there is a high degree of redundancy built into NASA’s project management. Whether sending astronauts into space or exploring the stars, there's not much leeway for error, so the early stages of a project revolve around a heavy amount of testing and prototyping. When it gets down to the “real deal,” you've only got one shot to get it right, with a thousand things that can go wrong.

The success or failure of a project also depends on how rigorously we apply our risk management techniques. In such a critical area, the concept of blended learning makes sense. APPL works with the project system to ensure training and development opportunities are available to all practitioners, tailored to level and need. We also have subject matter experts available to work directly with projects when the need arises, so learning takes place just-in-time to enhance project performance.

In addition to career development and performance enhancement, NASA strives to promote communication and wisdom transfer through knowledge management. Typical of most project managers, our staff doesn't want to hang around at a project's completion to write memoirs; team members want to move on to the next big, exciting project. However, we must stress the importance of taking time for lessons learned. We must continue to ascertain how NASA can become better by reflection and application of our experiences. Such a strategy incorporates lessons-learned database systems, case studies, development assignments and the like.

For this purpose, NASA has established an in-depth knowledge sharing program. APPL sponsors short forums allowing project managers to share their lessons through stories, as in our internal magazine ASK ( ASK and the knowledge-sharing forums have helped to create a more cohesive knowledge-sharing community.

As in any field, we cannot learn just one method and expect it to remain effective from there on out. The aerospace and exploratory communities are rife with change, and our project managers must be able to adapt quickly to thrive. NASA’s Pathfinder mission to Mars received so many accolades because our project managers and team members worked through a continual process of adaptation, always asking what could go wrong and what could be better. Such is the standard for all of NASA’s projects. PM




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