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How NASA Creates High-Performing Teams

The explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 rocked the world. The seven astronaut fatalities and subsequent mission failures, including Hubble, Columbia and several Mars missions, led to senate inquiries and NASA’s eventual realisation that it was social context, rather than technical incompetence, that led to these outcomes.

This uncomfortable truth utimately resulted in the development of the 4-Dimensional system for NASA teams , architected by former Director of Astrophysics, Charlie Pellerin. In How NASA Builds Teams, Charlie describes the program which has since been voluntarily completed by over 1,500 NASA teams. It consists of 8 critical behaviours, across four dimensions:

People-Building or “nurturing” behaviours hone in on, acknowledge and seek to accentuate individual strengths. Through the habit of authentic appreciation and the practice establishing shared interests, leaders are able to make individuals feel valued and appreciated.

Team-Building refers to behaviours that foster inclusion, building trust and harmony within a team. An example is practicing appropriate inclusion (as opposed to over-inclusion) on e-mails and in meetings. Keeping agreements, including the setting and maintenance of personal boundaries and team standards are crucial to the development of trust within a team.

When combined with the people-building behaviours, these team-building practices create a basis for psychological safety, which we now know (as a result of Google’s Aristotle project and other research by Amy Edmondson) is foundational for high-performance. Having said that, psychological safety on its own does not necessarily lead to high-performance and this is where the remaining dimensions play a crucial role in turing high-functioning teams into high-performing ones: 

System-Building describes those behaviours that serve to organise a team, bringing role clarity, accountability and matching authority. Equally important is the ability to identify the systemic social glitches that have crept into the system programming – the red ‘storylines’ and team-based dramas that are preventing optimal team performance. The 4-D program gave NASA a means of identying and addressing these, bringing greater clarity and certainty to the daily operational performance of its teams.

Finally, the Idea-Building or ‘visioning’ dimension speaks to a commitment to audacious goals, epitomised by John F. Kennedy’s ‘moon-shot’ speech which ignited the Apollo space program. Underpinning this is the concept of ‘reality-based optimism’ which is defined as ‘the courage to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and then choose the path that leads to the best possible version of the future.’

Underperforming NASA teams tended to show deficits in the ‘Nurturing’ and ‘Including’ behaviours, as opposed to the ‘Directing’ and ‘Visioning’ dimensions and, ironically, it was the relative absence of these so-called ‘soft’ skills that contributed most to mission failures and fatalities. It was not until the 4-Dimensional System introduced these capabilities that balance was restored.

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