Improving Team Collaboration at NASA
PMI recently spoke with Ginger Kerrick about working at NASA and her tips for putting together successful project teams.
Ginger Kerrick’s trajectory into space was a bumpy one. Denied her childhood dreams of becoming a basketball player and then an astronaut due to medical issues, she persevered to become the first non-astronaut capsule communicator, the first Russian training integration instructor and the first Latina and only the fifth woman to be accepted to NASA’s elite group of Mission Control flight directors. From her position at the NASA Johnson Space Center, she collaborated on 13 International Space Station and five joint shuttle missions, fulfilling her own dream by supporting others.
During her time at NASA, Kerrick worked to foster better cross-organizational collaboration and supported NASA’s partnership with SpaceX. After leaving NASA in November 2021, Kerrick moved to Barrios Technology, where she serves as chief strategy officer and continues to partner with NASA and others on the rapidly developing space exploration economy.
PMI recently spoke with Kerrick about her time at NASA and her advice for helping others to develop their skills and achieve the mission.
PMI: What project are you most passionate about?
Kerrick: At NASA, the one that really struck my heart was when I was asked to launch a new division — called the Flight Integration Division — for the Flight Operations Directorate. The goal of this new division, the first in 20 years, was to get our teams more coordinated and improve safety for crews when they are launching and landing our vehicles from U.S. soil.
PMI: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter during this project and how did you overcome them?
Kerrick: The technical obstacles were actually the easy part. Getting the people and the culture aligned was the hardest piece. When I formed the Flight Integration Division, I took people out of their home organizations. I had engineers from the astronaut office or the flight director office and I had to somehow convince them that working for me was a good thing, both for them and for NASA.
This sounds like a cliché, but my approach was to meet people where they are. Some people were excited to come over and get to work. Others associated their identities with where they worked originally. I had to use a wide variety of tactics to get them on board. For the people who weren't ready, I sat with them and I mourned the loss and showed that I was an empathetic leader but that I really needed them to get on board. And they did. For those who were ready for the change, I trained them to help me with the laggards.
PMI: What advice do you have for managing projects better?
Kerrick: I’ve already mentioned meeting people where they are. To do that you need to truly invite, embrace and incorporate diverse perspectives. Project leaders often turn to the same people over and over when leading a project — seeking out the people who are most familiar with a topic. But I've had the greatest success when I incorporate someone who isn't familiar with the topic and someone who doesn't speak up as often. Those are usually the people with the great ideas, but you have to pull those ideas out of them a little bit differently.
PMI: What skills do you think are most important for project management?
Kerrick: This is going to sound odd, but emotional intelligence is my number one. There are a lot of tools out there for project management and people can learn how to apply them, but the most challenging skill is managing people.
PMI: How would you recommend acquiring skills that someone might not have yet?
Kerrick: The go-to method everyone uses is reading or going to a training class and those are all great and I have done that. But one of the extra things I do when I know I’m deficient in a particular skill is look for someone who is proficient and make friends with them. I'll say, “You look like you're the expert in this field, and I need some help. Would you mind if I picked your brain for a while?”
PMI: What is your moonshot idea that you would love to assemble a team around and make reality?
Kerrick: My moonshot idea has nothing to do with going to the moon because I'm already doing that. My moonshot idea is really to help society. I want to form a team to find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's. Also, I live in Houston, Texas, where there are millions of stray dogs running around and I want to find the perfect team to help solve the stray dog problem. Building on my NASA experience, my brain automatically goes to how we can better humanity.