#Tech17: Embrace Curiosity-Based Decision Making

ASAE’s Technology Conference & Expo kicked off on Tuesday with NASA’s Adam Steltzner, who says you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to dream big and unlock what seems impossible.

If you think your job as an association professional is tough, talk to Adam Steltzner, literally a rocket scientist and chief engineer of entry, descent, and landing for the NASA Mars rover missions.

Steltzner worked with a team of more than 3,100 NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers to spearhead a Mars rover landing in 2012, and soon he’ll lead on another mission—the Mars 2020 Rover—to gather rocks from a planet more than 300 million miles away.

As a leader, you need to check your ego. Because being right is not nearly as important as finding right.

His first space mission was long in coming: It took almost a decade of trial and error to successfully land a rover named Curiosity on the surface of the Red Planet. It was a shared experience that led to plenty of cheers and tears in Houston.

“Personally, I learned a lesson about brainstorming, collaboration, and teamwork,” Steltzner told attendees in a keynote session opening the 2017 ASAE Technology Conference & Expo in National Harbor, Maryland, Tuesday morning. “At the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL], within our corporate culture, we do a very good job with a very simple thing that is tremendously powerful. It is, quite simply, separating ideas from the people that hold them.”

It may not be rocket science, but association leaders can learn from NASA about how to use teamwork and curiosity-based decision making to spark innovation.

Embrace the “Right Kind of Crazy”

At JPL, there’s no such thing as a bad idea, Steltzner said. At the start of any project, he delivers this message to his team: “Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.”

That style of thinking also serves as the basis for his book, The Right Kind of Crazy, which shares stories of teamwork and leadership that delivered high-stakes innovation.

A truly innovative organization, Steltzner said, embraces big or crazy ideas, so long as they’ve been put to the test. To test ideas at JPL, Steltzner starts by convening his entire team for an open and judgment-free brainstorming session. Everyone’s thinking—good or bad—is captured by a neutral facilitator.

From there, team leaders develop a taxonomy structure that organizes and maps ideas based on their connections. This process may reveal that several ideas are related or that one is an outlier. Only then can a question-and-answer discovery phase sort out good ideas from bad ones.

“You play the strengths and weaknesses of those answers against each other until you reach a decision point,” Steltzner said. “As a leader, you need to check your ego. Because being right is not nearly as important as finding right.”

Take a Team Approach

Curiosity-based decision making is grounded in mutual respect, and teamwork goes a long way toward establishing it, Steltzner said. He recommends that colleagues take time for “fellowship moments” because they enhance workplace culture.

“I look for something to love in my colleagues, and frankly I want to have a good time at work,” he says. “We accomplished one of the greatest challenges in aerospace engineering in the last 40 years, and we did it having a blast.”

Something as simple as a regular team lunch can encourage collaboration and give staff a chance to socialize about something other than the project at hand.

But there’s a role for introspection as well. Leaders need to get to know themselves better and learn to love their vulnerabilities, Steltzer said. Often, the biggest inhibitor to curiosity is not someone else, but your own fears.

“When I allowed myself to follow my curiosity, it changed the course of my life,” he said. “If I can stay in touch with my own curiosity and encourage teammates and colleagues, the solutions that we get are more profound and capable and may change the course of history.”

NASA rocket scientist Adam Steltzner. (Sabrina Kidwai, APR, CAE)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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