The Kindest Cut

If we’re going to cut NASA funding, let’s make it meaningful.

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Organizations in the R&D community have staked out their territories and settled into their own orthodoxies for research priorities and design philosophies. Ideas that don't fit the current program are labeled "offbeat," "unproven," or "leapfrog technologies."

It's not that NASA or Department of Defense officials are unusually parochial or narrow-minded. It's just that the same attributes that make mature bureaucracies efficient in some areas, such as reliably carrying out routine operations, make them ill-suited for other tasks, such as taking risks and questioning conventional wisdom.

There are basically two schools of thought on how to get organizations to generate new ideas and new ways of doing business. The first is to encourage (or compel) an organization to change its mindset and its way of doing business. The second assumes that a mature bureaucracy will not change its thinking on its own, leaving two alternatives: thoroughly shaking up the organization from the outside or giving other organizations an opportunity to compete.

The first approach is the one Daniel Goldin has been trying for the past three years at NASA, pushing the agency to work "faster, better, cheaper." Unfortunately, experience suggests that changing a bureaucracy's way of doing business may be one of the hardest tasks in the world. There are usually too many people within a large organization with too much invested in their education and experience to suddenly change direction. And these attitudes are reinforced by formal procedures and rules.

What's more, such organizations can be remarkably resilient. They may change at the margins but keep as much "business as usual" as they can. Recall the U.S. auto industry during the 1970s, for example. Detroit was beginning to face stiffer competition from Japan, which had figured out that there was a market in America for low-priced, well-built small cars. U.S. companies, which had prospered for decades building big, unsophisticated turnpike cruisers, resisted. When pushed, Detroit would build smaller, more efficient cars (often with tragi-comic results, like the Pacer and Vega), but its heart was in selling Impalas.

Similarly, in response to its critics, NASA is undertaking new programs like the Small Satellite Technology Initiative and the New Millennium program for building cheaper space probes (total budget for the 1996 fiscal year: about $30 million each). But its priority is still mega-projects like the space station (total FY 1996 budget: $1.8 billion) and keeping the space shuttle flying (total FY 1996 budget: $3.2 billion). NASA's culture is manned space and big projects. In other words, Impalas.

Of course, NASA is a favorite target for criticism these days, but in truth, the aerospace community as a whole has grown grayer and slower. For example, in 1956 the Air Force could develop the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (the forerunner of today's Delta launch vehicle) in just 13 months. Today the Department of Defense is spending 18 months just to decide what kind of launch vehicle the United States should develop next!

This is why the second approach to generating new ideas seems to have the most potential: Change the very organization itself, or look for a new one. Alas, in the case of bureaucracies like the aerospace community, the most effective tool for bringing about such changes may be massive budget cuts.

The private sector has lots of ways to shake up organizations and eliminate those that refuse to adapt. For example, in the case of General Motors, after a series of failures and fiascoes in developing a car to compete with Toyota and Nissan, the board of directors finally fired the management and moved the company out of its long-established headquarters in downtown Detroit to the Detroit suburbs. Private companies can also sell off entire divisions that no longer fit their market strategy (one reason why General Electric no longer makes satellites). They can take over companies to acquire new talent (a la IBM and Lotus Development) or merge to develop synergy (Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, etc., etc.). Or, if they really screw up, they can simply go out of business (Pan Am, Eastern Airlines).

Even in the political world, there is a ready means to replace organizations in order to introduce new ideas and new thinking. Ask George Bush. Ask Tom Foley.

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