Rod Pyle, the author of Innovation the NASA Way, has led leadership trainings at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its top executives and has also trained leaders from Fortune 100 companies. Pyle spoke about NASA and fostering innovation with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What are some of the traits that make for successful innovators?
A. What I saw at NASA at large, and in looking at the history of the space race and the Apollo and early shuttle programs, was this sense of daring and boldness. Innovation comes with risk. In the public sector, you've got a lot of visibility and sometimes that's a problem. Yet the people at NASA who are successful always take risks. They make bold decisions and they are very dedicated. Having a sense of passion seems to drive people to be able to come up with incredible ideas.
Q. What allows NASA to be an innovative organization?
A. NASA is more bureaucratic than it used to be and there is a thicker rulebook, but the momentum that carries them is still this incredible sense of mission. If you go to any NASA center and ask someone what program they are working on and how they feel about it, nine times out of 10 you are going to get this very excited civil servant who tells you all about where they are going, how they are getting there, what they hope to find when they get there and why it is important.
The best leaders in the organization are able to own that and let that transfer down to the people who work with them and for them. That includes being able to provide an environment in which innovation can really blossom.
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