George: Welcome to IIL’s aLLPM.com’s podcast interview.
My name is George Bridges, and I am the allPM Project Management Roving Reporter. We have are very excited about having the opportunity to interview you today. Please sit back, relax, grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage, and enjoy the podcast interview.
I’d like to welcome Dr. Edward Hoffman to our second Roving Reporter interview for our aLLPM.com website. Dr. Hoffman is NASA’s Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and he is the director of the NASA Academy of Program, Project, and Engineering Leadership Academy, also known as APPEL. Dr. Hoffman also works with leaders of industry, academia, professional associations, and other government agencies developing agency capabilities and programs in project management and engineering. Welcome Dr. Hoffman.
Dr. Hoffman: Thank you George. It’s a pleasure to join you.
George: It’s our honor and privilege to have you as an interviewee for one of our most important contributions to our project and program management community. We are just thrilled to have you involved in this interview.
Dr. Hoffman, what is the mission of APPEL? How would you describe it? What led you to spearheading the creation of it?
Dr. Hoffman: Before I even tell you the mission, I think the genesis will give everyone an understanding of why and what it does. Why does NASA have a Project Management Academy?
I would like to say, because failure is a possibility. The work that we do is very complex. It’s a challenging business. It takes a lot of mastery and competence to be successful. That’s the reason for the NASA APPEL.
The catalyst, specifically, goes back to 1986 when we had one of our biggest failures, which was the Challenger shuttle explosion. There were a lot of reviews at the time. One of the directions that NASA set out for itself was to focus on the development of the program or project management workforce to get it to the level of excellence that was desired. Now, the Academy, over the last couple of decades, has evolved, but it has always had the mission, since that starting point, to support the NASA mission by promoting individual, team, and organizational excellence in the execution of programs, projects, and engineering. As part of that, we focus on enhancing key fields in project management, supporting teams in progress, and promoting organizational learning.
George: Let me just go back a minute. How did you get involved with project and program management? Will you give the audience the flavor of your background?
Dr. Hoffman: I joke that I’m kind of the horse of a different color. Most people assume that I’m an engineer, based on what I’m doing. I have a doctorate from Columbia University in Social and Organizational Psychology. I was doing research on the competencies of exceptional leaders and team performance, and NASA was interested in it. As a result, I started doing an internship—a co-op assignment—at NASA, which ultimately led to my career.
George: Were there others involved in the foundation and the establishment of APPEL?
Dr. Hoffman: Yes. The predecessor to the Academy was started in 1988, the Program, Project Management Initiative. I came on board at the start of it, but for the first six months I was supporting Frank Hoban, who was an outstanding leader at NASA. Frank was on board initially starting it up, and after about six months, he decided to do other things in his career. From that point on, I was pretty much running the project management development for NASA.
George: I understand that you co-authored a book that reveals more about APPEL.
Dr. Hoffman: Yes. I appreciate the question. One of the things that I am always asked to do is to talk about why NASA set up APPEL. What does it do? What are some of the things that the Academy should have as a part of it? I co-authored with a colleague, Matt Kohut, an electronic book, which is free and available. It’s called NASA’s Journey to Project Management Excellence.
By way of a brief history, in about 50-60 pages we go into why we set up the organization, and what it does.
George: Since you’ve given us permission to do so, we are going to make this free eBook available to our listeners and readers. Thank you very much for that.
Dr. Hoffman: Absolutely. I’m happy to do so.
George: Now, in business and industry we have these chief officers, such as a Chief Information Officer, CIO and a Chief Technology Officer, CTO. I understand that part of your title now and your role is Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA, CKO along with running the NASA Academy. What is the responsibility of your position there, as the CKO?
Dr. Hoffman: I was appointed NASA’s CKO at the end of 2010. In part, it represents an evolution of the focus of trying to make sure that we have the individuals and teams who have the information, the knowledge, and the kind of environment that increases the likelihood of mission success.
Principally, the CKO is a facilitating role. It’s there to make it easier for people in our programs to apply, use, and access the expertise and the wisdom in the competencies that are out there at NASA, in executing the work that they do.
George: How closely would that relate to what we call a project management office or PMO in private industry?
Dr. Hoffman: It depends on the components. They are very similar. However, both roles that I have as the director of the NASA Academy and CKO really are focused on supportive facilitative roles, providing learning, development, and knowledge management. It’s all about talent development. In private industry, similarly, you would have program management offices that are often involved with setting up the policy or the guidelines for how we do our projects. They often times will have assistants for helping teams when they’re in a project. Also, they are there to help with the education and capability of their people. At NASA, that’s what we have in place, as well.
George: In the current economic environment that we have today, we are reading about the reduced funding for space exploration at least over the last year and a half. What is the short- and long-term vision of the agency and how is it poised for support of research and development in this country over the next fifty years? How do you see the role of this agency in the country today?
Dr. Hoffman: As you and our listeners know, NASA is going through a lot of significant changes. Part of the reason that things are being done differently is reflected in the establishment of the CKO role. Our strategy is therefore changing what we focus on and what competencies we are considering to adopt.
From the standpoint of what is continuing, we have the international space station. It is an awesome accomplishment of over a dozen countries working together to live and work in space. It will be operational at least through 2020 or beyond. One aspect we often don’t think about, as part of that mission, is not just the fact that it’s been built and it’s operational, but how do we start learning from that project. It was a major international collaboration. We learned about the things that we did well, the things we need to do better in the future, and how we learned technically. Some of the questions about the international space station are: What did we learn about the multi-decade approach of building it? What will we learn, from a research standpoint, between now and the end of 2020? How do we apply that to future missions for space exploration?
A second issue is, obviously, the Mars program. We’ve had a lot of good successes, most recently the Mars Curiosity. As an example, in the robotic program, project activities go hand in hand with human exploration. You want to send robots out first so that it’s safer, more affordable, and they give us a greater understanding for when we want to send humans into those locations. We have a Mars program that’s moving out, that’s in collaboration with our international partners.
We have in process the development of a space launch vehicle that will provide for longer distance exploration.
One of our big flagship missions that is coming up and is in process is the James Webb Space Telescope which will hopefully replace the Hubble and will continue to expand the knowledge of our understanding of planetary and earth science and the universe. Those are the things that are taking place.
In terms of some of the major changes, obviously, we are going through great change in terms of human exploration. The mission for that is still being determined. When do we go? What are some of the key accomplishments? How do we do that? There is going to be much more of an increased collaboration on the focus on the expansion of space work through commercial entities. We have traditional organizations. Now you’re seeing new entrepreneurial firms starting to get involved in that for exploration, for launch vehicles, and for tourism. Part of that will be a heavy, heavy emphasis in terms of the project work around the research and the development of innovative technologies that make it cheaper, safer, and allows us to have the ability to have performance to do more space exploration and to do things we haven’t done before.
It’s a changing environment, we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. But it’s still an incredible organization, and I think there is a lot of work, currently, in the future that will be there.
George: As a novice, I’m surprised every week I pick up the paper and read about something that scientists are finding out new every day with the current technology, the number of planets, and what you’re finding on Mars. Obviously there is a lot more to be discovered.
Dr. Hoffman: Yes. It’s a great place to work. I was really fortunate when I came here. I think one of the things it also demonstrates is that you couldn’t do this without a project based organization. The work that’s done is that we are always solving problems that are novel, that are new.
Again, that feeds back to why we have an Academy, to why we established a CKO. We’re dealing with technologies that are being invented, that are cutting edge. We’re dealing with a team. One of the great opportunities and also challenges in a NASA project is that ninety percent of the work is going to be done with industry. Now we have the supply chain factor. About eighty percent of our programs are now done in international collaboration around the world. Again, we are often collaborating with other government agencies and associations. We couldn’t do this kind of work without the project based approach. Yes, it’s very exciting, and one of the things it allows us to do is to see and measure when things are happening and time frames.
George: The level of your involvement is quite interesting. Based on your background, I noticed that in 2000 you co-authored a book called “Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders”, and in 2005 you co-authored a book called “Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects”. In our earlier pre-interview discussion, you shared that you have a passion for teamwork and leadership. You talk about leadership and how it relates to and plays a big part in project, program, and portfolio management. Can you tell the audience more about your thoughts and ideas on teamwork and leadership?
Dr. Hoffman: Yes. I think that anybody who knows me or has heard me speak knows what I think leads people to success. In anything that we do in an organization, ultimately, it comes down to this: 1) Is it helping the success of the mission? 2) Why are projects successful, or why do they fail?
To me, the first thing is that success is related to the people. At the end of the day there are technical challenges, there is cost, there are all kinds of processes, and some things that you need to master. A successful project only happens because of the effective collaboration, the communication, and the integration of people.
My background in terms of the research I formed at the university was focused on teams. When I first got to NASA, our focus for almost the first decade was on individual development, individual competencies, and building up individuals to be able to be capable of being successful on a mission. Then in the late 90’s we had a series of failures of missions and projects going to Mars. When we spoke to the people working those missions to understand what was going on, one of the things we understood is that they didn’t feel that they had access to the learning that they needed that could go directly to the teams.
When you’re in a project, you don’t want to take time out to go off to training and leave people, and we didn’t have support going directly to the team. At that point, we dramatically changed how we focused in terms of the project management development. We established performance enhancement support that could go to any program, project, or engineering teams when they needed it. It was a straight forward thing.
The thing that amazed me, that started me with this story, is we take teams for granted in the project business. We assume it’s going to be a team, but how do we select the people, how do we develop them, and how do we give them the support when they’re under pressure? Clearly, project success is about people, and the performance of project success is a function of team effectiveness. How do we work that?
The other thing I’d say related to that is, obviously, one of the key aspects of project management, is risk management. If I look at an organization like NASA, historically, when we think about risk, we think about technical risk. We’re very good at understanding , identifying , and thinking about that. The second thing we’re probably good at is understanding cost, the economic risk, fiscal risk, and acquisition risk. The thing that, until recently, I don’t think we really spent a lot of time thinking about formally is social risk. Social risk is how teams work together effectively. How do you understand who the team is? How do you work with partners who are around the globe in different time zones? How do you work with multiple industry organizations that have different parts of the equation? How do you pull together that complex system in an integrated fashion?
The social risk, I think, is so very important, and that comes down to the people and ultimately to the team. The leadership equation obviously is important, because we’ve all worked for leaders who are really good, and we know how wonderful it is to work in that environment. It’s an open environment, it’s appreciative, and it’s focused on getting the job done. This type of collaboration is highly successful.
We’ve also probably had experience working for leaders or managers who were poor at it, in an environment where communications weren’t flowing, where maybe the environment was more insensitive and (not) appreciative. We know how that impacts performance.
Certainly, from the two books the Shared Voyage and Project Management Success Stories, but mostly from my experience of 30 years here at NASA, and from the colleagues that I meet with around the world, it comes down to people, and it comes down to how we set up our teams for people to be able to work together and to share in an environment of inclusion and mutual respect.
George: You mentioned the other passion you have about storytelling. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What’s the advantage of being able to tell stories in a project environment? How does that work?
Dr. Hoffman: I believe that stories are one of the most powerful and most essential tools that a leader has and that an organization has. To me, even at a high level, the stories are the histories we have. If I’m in a project team, if I visited a center and I listen to people talk and tell me the story of what’s going on in their project, I immediately know how it’s performing. If you get people who start telling what I call “Stephen King” stories—horror stories about their management, about not having proper funding, about processes not working—that’s a clue to the dynamics of the team.
Similarly, if you ask a person working on a project how things are going and if they tell you a positive story, an uplifting story, you get a real good sense of success.
I think, ultimately, that the power of the story is that you know projects. Looking at the Academy, we’ve been set up for many years to focus on three dimensions of learning.
The first dimension is the individual. How do we take people who come and give them the competency, the capability, and the confidence to work on very pressurized, very complex projects?
The second thing is team level, which is how do you get people to effectively work together as a team, to make sure we have the right performance.
Then the third thing that I think is often forgotten in a project environment is the responsibility for ongoing organizational excellence. Specifically, how are we learning together? How are we capturing the knowledge? How do we understand and how do we share whether something is working? It’s the whole issue of how do we create, retain, and share the knowledge of what’s happening in a project?
To me the most powerful way to do that is through stories. We spent a lot of time at NASA trying to create reflective practitioners, reflective project managers, and engineers who think about what’s working, what’s not, and then share their stories and their perspectives. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong. It just has to be what they see, and transfer that to different formats.
We do that through our magazines. We do that through master forums. We do that through our training. It is largely using the power of stories to exchange our knowledge of what’s important, what’s working, and what is not.
George: I think that’s a very important topic and perhaps maybe at a later time if we can talk our chief editor into it, we can have a session solely on storytelling. I think we can do a whole session on that one. (Publisher’s note: That would be awesome!)
Dr. Hoffman: I’d love to do that. Just to give you one small example – I could give you thousands – but, this goes back several years. I was visiting one of our centers on a review, and I was talking to them about different services in terms of how things were going. One of the young practitioners, a young woman, who was starting her career working a subsystem project said to me, “Ed, how come you haven’t mentioned anything about ASK (Academy Sharing Knowledge) Magazine?”
I thanked her. ASK is one of our magazines where we have practitioners sharing their stories. I said, “Well, I was covering other things. Why did you mention that?”
She said, “Because it really made a difference in the project that I’m managing.”
She followed up the story by saying that she was working a small subsystem project, and she was having problems figuring out the correct way to set up reviews between her center, industry, and headquarters. She read an article that was written by Marty Davis who had been one of our senior project managers at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and he happened to be talking about project reviews, working with headquarters, the way to set it up. She said that really addressed what she was looking at. She went the next step and called Marty (this is all without me knowing about it). Marty went out there. The woman was Sue Modle. They got together. They talked, and she actually changed the nature of the project reviews and got approval from headquarters. She claimed to have saved millions of dollars just from that kind of an exchange.
What’s the power of the story? The power is that Marty Davis had a story that he wanted to share. In that case he did it through writing. That story connected with another practitioner and was applied. I’m a very, very big believer in that.
George: That’s excellent, and that’s an excellent example. We have a couple of more questions here that we are going to use to wrap up. You talked about risk management. There is also, what we call, project disaster recovery. There were some disasters that you experienced at NASA. How did you deal with them? What were some of the lessons learned that you picked up from those project disasters? What can you tell us about disaster recovery that’s been what you’ve been applying and attempting to apply for your projects after the disaster occurred?
Dr. Hoffman: It is an interesting topic. I think I mentioned when we were talking that my career has been about recovery from failure. When I think about it, similarly, I became the director of this Academy as a result of the Challenger, and how do we set up a recovery base. We started our team development approach in terms of performance enhancement as a result of the Mars failures at the end of the 90’s. The heavy focus on the knowledge, and probably the CKO, was contributed partly by the Columbia failure in terms of how we learn and how we approach things. That is why failure and recovery is a key issue.
I think, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself as to what happened and what went wrong. Why was there a failure? There is a natural tendency for any individual, team, or organization, that when things go very bad to try to justify it. I think that’s a big mistake. It’s, okay, things went wrong. There has been a disaster. Let’s be honest. Let’s not just be honest within ourselves, let’s get other people from the outside who can be harsher and more honest, because, we need to get better. We need to improve.
A failure disaster of Challenger, a Columbia in and of itself is tragic. The greater tragedy would be if we don’t improve as a result of these failures.
What I’ve seen, over the years, at NASA, and I don’t know if it’s a step sequence, but there are four broad areas that things happen when we really get focused on learning and improving based on the need to recover or get better as a result of project reviews. The first thing that I see happening organizationally is we look at the policies. We look at the processes that we have in place. NASA is an organization with a tremendous amount of narrative, in terms of guidelines and policies. We look at that and say, “Do we have things right? Are our people getting the right guidance, and are they using it?” There is a focus, usually on the issues of the policies, the procedures, and the processes.
The second thing that I see is a heavy emphasis on what I call the learning organization part. It is: What are we doing in our training? What are we doing to promote learning in the organization? What are we doing to make sure that we have a culture that is open where things are not being kept back? What are we doing to make sure, in other words, that knowledge is flowing freely, and that when someone has a problem or a concern, they can address it? They can either get the solution or they can raise the problem. When people have wisdom, when they have answers, have we made an organization that is easy for that wisdom to be shared? A second thing I see is a focus on the learning, the knowledge, and the talent elements.
The third is communications, communications, communications. A key aspect of recovery is what we talked about earlier. What happened? Why did it happen? Be honest. Do not assume that just because we sent out a notice or because we have a training course or it’s been communicated a couple of times that it has been heard. Keep talking about it. The other day at a senior leadership meeting we heard from Ralph Roe, the head of the NASA Engineer Safety Center, which is a talented group that was put in place after Columbia. Ralph worked on Columbia. He goes around and shares his stories and perspectives of what happened and what we contributed to lead to Columbia. We have those kinds of sessions. We have forums where we talk about what worked and what didn’t. We will be looking at the International Space Station in terms of what we did, what we learn, what we do the same, and what we do differently.
Ultimately, I think the biggest thing that we focus on and is emphasized is the real understanding that success in a program, in a project environment is about professional excellence. It’s about the practitioners, the programs, the projects, the engineering, the science, and the different organizations. It’s about each individual’s commitment to excellence that makes the difference. If that doesn’t happen, none of the rest of this stuff works. These are the factors: Strong policies, communications, a learning environment, and an awareness that it happens at the practitioner level.
George: I understand that in some cases, in order to be innovative you have to expect failure. How would you relate that to companies that want to be innovative? Do they have to put their employees and their teams in a position where they can fail? Is it true that failure is not the end if you learn from that failure? It sounds like you were going in that direction in terms of learning. I read something else that says the only failure is when you don’t learn from your failure, and failure is a critical success factor. Those are some statements that were made. In closing, if there are three or four items or areas that you believe would contribute to the success or failure of large projects and programs, what suggestion would you give to young project and program managers who are just starting their career?
Dr. Hoffman: There are a lot of things that go into success. I would start with people. Pay attention to people. Performance happens at the team level. That team has to be working together. It has to be open. It has to be working off respect. If you don’t remember anything else, pay attention to the people and create an environment where there is inclusiveness in which people know what is going on, they are included, and there is a mutual respect. You can disagree, you can argue, you can fight, but there needs to be that respect that flows through the team.
The second thing, obviously, is risk. We are dealing in a world of complex projects and there are a lot of interfaces. I think a question that should always be asked is this: If this project is going to fail, why is it going to fail? Then run down those areas of danger and risk. Applying risk management should be very strong.
The third thing is that we know the proper performance definition. Do we have right what we are doing? Do we have the goal? Do we have the scope? Are we controlling those effectively? I think that relates also to the business and to the acquisition strategy. Do we have proper funding? If not, are we finding it? Are we raising it? Are we managing program control and fiscal management in a smart way? Do we have the right contract approaches in place that motivates innovation and costing or is that working against it?
I think, ultimately, it comes down to leadership. I encourage young professionals or students to read a few failure reports. Why did things go wrong? I think they will see that it comes down to environments that don’t pay attention to their people, that don’t value the knowledge at the practitioner level, and that don’t set up an environment that is free-flowing in terms of communication, dialog, and innovation. I think those are the places that you are brewing an unhealthy environment that can lead to failure. Leadership comes down to paying attention to the people and understanding the dynamics of the environment and what needs to be done.
George: I recall a national news reporter interviewing a NASA program manager about one of your space missions. The reporter asked the program manager about this particular area. The response the program manager gave was that his responsibility was to worry about everything. That seems to be what you are saying. As a program manager for a large mission, program, or project you have to look at everything. That’s part of your responsibility.
Dr. Hoffman: I would play it again a little bit my way that you have people working for you. I have a team. I expect that, hopefully, I have created the right environment so if something isn’t going right or someone is concerned about something they are able to raise that. I think that’s really what happens because when you are a project manager, particularly in a lot of these NASA missions, you are not going to know about the day to day. You’re not going to be able to be in touch with everything. Hopefully, you’ve communicated so effectively that each of your subordinate managers and team members make decisions based on their knowledge of how you would do it. There is that alignment with your strategy. Also, when things aren’t going right, you have created such an environment that they are comfortable in raising that, and they are raising it loud so the right things are coming to your attention.
George: I want to thank you for your time and the valuable information you shared with us. It’s been a learning experience for me conducting this interview. I’m sure that the listeners and the readers will certainly be able to take away a lot from this interview. Are there any last words that you would like to share with us before we close out?
Dr. Hoffman: The last word is that I really think it’s important to keep learning. I’ve enjoyed the conversation with you, George. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
George: Thank you Dr. Hoffman. Hopefully we can do this again in another setting.
Dr. Hoffman: I hope so. Thank you.
Download a copy of the eBook entitled, "NASA's Journey to Project Management Excellence.", by clicking on the following link: