It's hard to find a more extreme place to work than NASA: Launching shuttles, satellites, and people into space is a high-profile, high-risk job. And, yes, it is rocket science. So where does NASA train its extreme teams? In a world-class learning center — where the list of instructors includes some of the most brilliant project managers and scholars on the planet, and where the curriculum rivals that of a top university. Talk about "faster, better, cheaper": This remarkable program, which serves more than 5,000 engineers and scientists, has no dedicated campus and a full-time staff of only one.
NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership has developed extreme teams by steeping its students in NASA's particular brand of project management. It's become a legend in HR circles, with courses that draw staffers from other government agencies, along with private-sector engineers from companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Says Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator: "The academy is, quite simply, our source of innovation for managing our projects and programs. It is the way we develop the future leaders of NASA."
Much of the credit for the academy's success belongs to its director, Ed Hoffman. Hoffman came to NASA 16 years ago, after a stint of teaching organizational psychology at Columbia. Goldin credits Hoffman with providing the vision and leadership behind the academy's evolution from a small, internal initiative that took shape after the Challenger explosion into a world-class training program. "Hoffman is a superstar," Goldin says. "The academy would not have been possible without him. He has an eye for talent, and he has assembled a team that is second to none."
Hoffman's core team consists of about a dozen contractors and consultants, and it relies on a network of NASA employees for support and instruction. Hoffman passes all praise on to the academy's students. "We have a very tough audience," he says. "When these folks come in, their attitude isn't 'We expect you to teach us.' It's 'We think we know what's going on — so unless you provide us with what we need, we're not hanging around to listen.' "
Two years ago, a class openly revolted during a course on managing "fast track" projects. The instructor was offering textbook advice that bore little relevance to the real-world experience of the engineers in the room. Then the heckling began. Alerted to the chaos by a staff member, Hoffman slipped into the back of the classroom to listen. When members of the class threatened to leave, Hoffman decided to turn the revolt into a conversation. "I just got up and said, 'Obviously, we're doing a lousy job of meeting your needs. What can we do to change that?' "
After more than an hour of heated debate about project realities inside NASA, Hoffman wound up calling the agency's deputy administrator to pass on the feedback that he had heard: NASA's bureaucracy was getting in the way of moving faster. Then a message came back to the students: Help us rewrite the rules. The result was a complete change in the guidelines for project management, along with a new curriculum to support those new guidelines.
Jon Boyle, a consultant (and also one of Hoffman's closest advisers), puts those changes in perspective: "An academy class inspired the biggest changes in 40 years in the way project management happens at NASA. That showed our students that we are serious about listening to them and about helping them with the real jobs that they have to do in the real world."
Hoffman, who recently coauthored a book based on project work at NASA, "Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders" (Wiley, 1999), says that this willingness to listen is the academy's biggest source of innovation.
"This may sound strange, but I enjoy those situations when a class is in revolt," Hoffman says. "When people are fighting, you know that they are interested. And if you can get them with the right hook, they will actually do a lot of great work to help improve the agency. That's one of the reasons I love working here."
Contact Ed Hoffman by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.