Tuesday, July 13, 2010


You may have read an article the other day in which the Administrator of NASA said that the President had given him three tasks. In and of itself, giving an organization three tasks to achieve simultaneously is a risky thing, even if the three tasks are mutually supportive. The fact is that any organization, no matter how well led, will have a hard time focusing on three tasks at the same time. As a rule, a single goal is better then two, and two are better than three. Some few organizations can manage four goals simultaneously but they are rare, and exceptionally well led. Any organization with five or more goals might just as well not have any goals, and if it reaches any of them it is more through serendipity then the actions of the leadership.

But, in this particular case, the job given to the Administrator were so unrelated to what one normally considers to be the purview of NASA as to guarantee that those missions normally assigned to NASA – the US manned space program and exploration and exploitation of space – are certain to suffer. (Of course, the President’s Press Secretary has now informed the world that the Administrator was misinformed – so goes politics.)

The specific tasks given (or not, if the Press Secretary is to be believed) by the President are not bad: re-inspire children study science and math; expand NASA’s international relationships; and third, to reach out to the Muslim world.

The first is certainly something that the Department of Education should pursue, and from which the Department might receive public support from NASA and the various scientists and Astronauts. The second is again something that NASA might work as an adjunct to other US international relationships, via the State Department as well as DOD, and others. The third would appear to be something that is almost exclusively a State Department issue.

What is of issue here, apart from any political issues, is simply that it misdirects an organization. The NASA Administrator has been tasked to do three things that will necessarily consume significant portions of his time if he is to take seriously the directive of the President. Doing so precludes him from devoting the necessary leadership time to a series of pressing issues that NASA must deal with.

The lesson here is simple but painful. You as the leader have to show real discipline and provide real clarity. This is particularly true if you are leading a large organization with a wide range of subordinate offices or divisions. Whenever you speak you need to remember that when you speak you are giving strategic direction, and can easily whipsaw an organization from one set of goals to another. Your job is to provide focus and, within the context of a given division’s mission, a degree of stability that allows planning and effort.

A given set of goals may be near and dear to your heart. But you need to make sure that the words you are saying are related to the department you are addressing. Telling the general manager of your baseball team that cancer must be cured is at best confusing. If the general manager comes away from that meeting with a confused notion as to what his real job is – you are the one who got it wrong – not him.

New Leaders, particularly those with little leadership who are thrust into senior leadership position, will be tempted to get ‘everybody onto every bus’ and have everyone focused on ‘the big thing.’ That’s ok. But when the ‘Big Thing’ becomes 5 and then 10 and then 15 ‘Big Things’ the result is an unraveling of both the organization and ‘the Big Thing.’ It is both a common mistake and usually a disastrous one.

In most organizations, and particularly large one, there will always be those elements that aren’t contributing directly to this or that issue. That’s all right. Don’t attempt, like Cinderella’s Sisters, to make the shoe fit when it really can’t. In the original story Cinderella’s sisters actually maimed themselves, cutting their feet up with carving knives in failed efforts to make their feet fit the slipper. Don’t let your various departments do the same because they are responding to your poor direction.

Your job as leader is to provide focus for the entire organization, those one or two ‘Big Things’ that will define the organization. But you must also provide focus for those elements that don’t necessarily support those main goals.* In doing so, it is your job to provide clear goals that are consistent with the make-up of that particular agency. If you fail to do so you will at best generate controversy, and a good deal of discontent. And not a lot of progress.

* In some organizations these other offices or agencies have goals that are so different that they may warrant being separated from the others, either sold off or simply split into a separate company. Obviously, that is not possible in the Federal government.


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