Supporting agility and resilience: How Warwick Business School is helping NASA to boldly go further
As the private sector’s space race heats up, Professor Loizos Heracleous and senior leaders at NASA plot the agency’s way forward in changing circumstances.
The International Space Station was a triumph of science, design and engineering.
It took 10 years and more than 40 missions to assemble the 444-tonne structure – as big as a football pitch – piece by piece in space, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Arguably, though, none of that would have been possible if it wasn’t for one renegade group.
A group whose pioneering ideas and buccaneering style flew in the face of existing attitudes to change the future of space exploration forever.
A group of pirates.
Learning from history
That’s one of the many conclusions drawn by Professor Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School (WBS), who has worked in partnership with NASA to help the space agency improve its agility and resilience.
The ongoing collaboration took shape after Professor Heracelous’s prior work caught the eye of senior leaders at NASA.
He had researched the case study of the Xerox PARC laboratory, which repeatedly invented groundbreaking technologies like the computer mouse, the graphical user interface and the ‘WYSIWYG’ word processor – only to fail to commercialise them and watch on as competitors capitalised on its business mistakes.
In other studies, Loizos examined how Singapore Airlines and Apple Inc. had achieved success by balancing service quality with cost-efficiency and by using ‘quantum strategy’ respectively.
The folks at NASA were impressed enough to approach WBS.
Loizos has since explored how the organisation can pursue ambidexterity within its main operations, developed a new process model to help NASA manage long-term strategic change, and supported the implementation of key reforms to help the agency stay competitive in an increasingly commercialised sector.
The need for renegades
WBS’s relationship with NASA began in 2013 with a research project at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
It was in this project, through management workshops, research and interviews with key former staff such as John Muratore, that Professor Heracleous discovered the impact of the NASA Pirates.
“When Muratore joined in 1983, he was surprised to see that the computer architecture used in the Shuttle mission control was still the mainframe system from the Apollo era,” Loizos said.
“He believed that a distributed system based on a cluster of Unix-based PCs could offer greater functionality and help give flight controllers better diagnostic and fast-response capabilities.”
Three years later, when the Challenger disaster rocked NASA and the entire US, Muratore connected with a small band of new engineers who shared his views – a group he dubbed the Pirates.
“Their concerns fell on deaf ears, but they were undeterred,” Loizos said. “They borrowed hardware and started writing code for a mission control system that could run parallel to the existing one, later bringing their creation into a vacant part of the room at the Space Center.”
The resulting system was so evidently superior the Pirates could no longer be ignored, and soon the technical systems were transitioned to the new Unix-based computer cluster.
“That was successful, so the Pirates were then tasked with developing the capabilities of mission control for the planned International Space Station,” Professor Heracleous said.
“And in the end, it operated at a lower cost for both the Shuttle and the ISS programmes than the previous system had just for Shuttle – so a huge result not only for the Pirates, but NASA itself.”
For Loizos, the story of the NASA Pirates reflects a common misconception in business.
“We realised that these rebels were pioneers in agile practices long before ‘agility’ entered the organisational vocabulary,” he explained.
In his more recent projects, the Professor has co-authored articles with 34-year NASA staffer Steven Gonzalez and Douglas Terrier, Associate Director at Johnson Space Center.
The research has directly informed NASA’s management strategy, underpinning major change programmes at a time when the increasing role of private enterprise in space is changing the context for an organisation dating back to 1958.
“Professor Heracleous has been very helpful in helping us frame our discussion about how we formulate strategically and how we re-imagine and re-create the agency as we approach a challenging era of space exploration,” Douglas Terrier said.
Loizos sees the partnership is essential – and also only the start of brilliant things to come.
“We’re working with NASA partly to support its vision of space exploration and partly to help support it in its next great mission: the goal of a manned space flight to Mars.”