Culture | 5.08.14

Adam Steltzner

Building a High Performance Team for NASA Space Missions

Adam Steltzner tells Chris Brady about building a team for a space mission and why you don’t need to be good at everything…

In 1947 Norbert Wiener, one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, published a book called Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. It was Wiener who coined the term cybernetics, based on the Greek kubernetes (the pilot or helmsman of a ship) or, more specifically, the related term kubernetike (the art of the steersman).

In the introduction to his book, Wiener describes how, through a series of regular meetings, ideas were formed and tested by experts from a variety of disciplines operating without intellectual boundaries. He says: “We conducted a monthly series of discussion meetings… The participants were mostly young scientists at the Harvard Medical School, and we would gather for dinner about a round table in Vanderbilt Hall. The conversation was lively and unrestrained. It was not a place where it was either encouraged or made possible for anyone to stand on his dignity. After the meal, somebody – either one of our group or an invited guest – would read a paper on some scientific topic… The speaker had to run the gauntlet of acute criticism, good-natured but unsparing. It was a perfect catharsis for half-baked ideas, insufficient self-criticism, exaggerated self-confidence, and pomposity. Those who could not stand the gaff did not return, but among the former habitués of these meetings there is more than one of us who feels that they were an important and permanent contribution to our [intellectual] unfolding.”

Asked how he managed to lead a disparate group of NASA space engineers in a nine-year project to land a one-tonne rover, Curiosity, on the surface of Mars using the Sky Crane, team leader Adam Steltzner replied that he did it by setting a very “big table”. In a description reminiscent of Wiener, he said: “I invite a very flat organisational structure, not very hierarchical. I invite people to cross the boundaries of their intellectual and practical territories and delve into the boundaries of others. To get cross pollination of ideas and to get everybody bought into the team’s effort.”

That big table is made up of some 40 people, with a core strategic group of around 20. To put this into perspective, somewhere in the region of 7,000 people worked on the Curiosity mission in one capacity or another. They are made up of systems experts and domain experts. The former provide a systemic understanding of the interrelationship between the parts of the system while the latter tend to focus on their own particular element of the project. It was Steltzner’s job to make sure that the task of “throwing a dart at a dartboard twenty thousand feet away” was successfully completed.

Steltzner was the leader of the “entry, descent and landing” team for the Sky Crane element of the Curiosity mission. The Sky Crane was his responsibility, his creation. The precise details of the mission and its successful completion are outlined in an excellent article in the New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger but in short, a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on 26 November 2011 and delivered a mobile science lab onto Mars just under nine months later, 6 August 2012. As Steltzner says: “Once the thing is on its way we’re all bystanders. What was going to happen was going to happen,” but before the “seven minutes of terror” as the team termed the final moments of the mission, there were nine years of hard work for the team leader (Steltzner) and his team.

The journey began with the selection of the team. What criteria did Steltzner employ when pulling a team together? Was it a question of finding the perfect fit? Steltzner calls the process a sort of “auto-organic team structuring”. He says: “I actually think that there are very few industries, if any, that have the luxury of finding the exact right shaped peg for the exact right shaped hole. The trick is that if you find a pentagonal-shaped guy who you know can add value to the team then find that guy, or create for that guy, a pentagonal shaped role to fill. It’s about getting good people with the requisite skills into the team.”

So, are there any deal breakers in selecting team members? Steltzner says: “There are some middle deal breakers such as if you’re not at all interested in working in a team. However, the only real deal breaker, the one that literally gets you ejected from the team, is that if your own work is put ahead of the team’s goals. Usually that is someone who is so insecure that they feel that they only have power if they withhold information from the rest of the group about the thing that they’re doing. That’s unacceptable.“

And having selected his team, how does Steltzner lead and manage them? “My guys would say that I manage poorly but that I lead very well”. His style, he says, is to delegate the more managerial aspects of the job to others who are more suited to the tasks. “I have people working with me who are better planners, better at making sure that we’re executing on each of the details of the overall plan. I focus my attention on being intermittently connected with the essence of what we’re doing; looking for central problems in what we’re doing. I see myself as the free safety of the team [the free safety role in American football is analogous to the “libero” in football. Their job is to sense danger and put the fires out before they develop into major issues]. I am constantly looking for trouble, trying to find it before it becomes real trouble.”

So what is key to fulfilling this role? Steltzner argues: “I need to have the technical grasp of what we’re doing that is close to that of each of the domain experts. I need this grasp because technical problems don’t typically form at the heart of a domain; they form at the boundaries between domains. This is yet another reason why that big table culture of being in each other’s shorts is so important because it’s when we’re looking outside of our individual domain silos that we can begin to recognise issues, risks and problems that are happening at the silo boundaries”.

And in this instance, Steltzner says, he would hope: “that my guys would say that I lead witha technical mastery and human sensitivity, that I’m a good reader of technical situations and human beings”.

He accepts that of the three functions necessary to survive and prosper in successful high performance teams – leading, managing and coaching – he is good at two. “I’m good at leading and coaching; I get others better at it than me to do the detailed managing. That’s not strange because I think that good tactical managers are not usually great at leading people”.

Even before the team is pulled together, the idea of the mission has to be accepted by the organisation. As with many major project industries, there is what amounts to a bidding war to have your project approved, funded and resourced. The way in which relatively small projects, and even those that are referred to as the big flagship missions, are ”green-lighted” is very similar to the modus operandi of the film industry and, indeed, many other industries which have embraced what is referred to as “Hollywoodisation”. It is also true of the way in which teams are brought together. When a company is in the planning stage of a film it may have as few as three people working on the idea. Once the film is given the budgetary green light by the studio head, then that team will expand to include the necessary expertise for the next stage until shooting starts and there may be 100-200 people working on a very tight 50 to 70-day schedule. No longer are Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate type overruns acceptable. It was nearly three years before the Curiosity project reached a sufficient critical mass to enable the final team to be assembled.

As with film-makers, Steltzner has an “A” team of colleagues who he has worked with previously and whom he trusts, including Miguel San Martin, who Steltzner sees as his “partner in crime” and whom he sees as integral to any team he creates. In fact, many of the people who had worked on previous Mars missions eventually found their way onto the Curiosity team but it seems the case that in talent-dependent industries, there is a common theme of bringing teams of trusted colleagues along with the arrival of the leader. As we know, managers arrive at football clubs and an entire senior team often arrives with them.

Also, as with the film industry, once a space project is over, the team disperses and the team leaders begin the search for the next challenge. In fact, Steltzner has already started his next project. He is now committed to leading a mission to Mars in 2020. The task is to gather samples, seal them in containers to be delivered back to Earth. At the moment this may only be a two-man team but it’s no surprise that the other guy is San Martin, the first name on Steltzner’s teamsheet.

There is also the same competitive bidding process in the space world as in other talent industries. Steltzner accepts that, as a consequence, the ability to sell is an essential element of the skillset necessary for him to do his job well. He reluctantly accepts that he has to do it, and be good at it. He says: “I would interchange the word ‘sell’ with the phrase… [his voice tails off, as he tries to find the right words] ‘communicate the value’. When I was at high school I took my first personality test and it said that I would be a good inventor, promoter and salesman… and I hated the salesman part of it!”

So, while technical knowledge on a generic level is essential, it is the people skills – including selling – that mark out the best leaders. For Steltzner it is the more ephemeral elements of the job that carry the real significance. For example, asked if he would have the same drive and passion if his job comprised designing waste-disposal facilities, he admits he probably wouldn’t: “I need a little bit of ‘sexy’ in whatever I do”.  Like all of the most passionate leaders, Steltzner thrives on this ‘sexy’ and he also needs his “big table” approach. However, it’s the actual mission that’s important and it’s no coincidence that these space projects are termed “missions”. Steltzner explains: “When we explore, when we are operating at the edges of our capability, we are fundamentally wondering about who we are as humans. That process brings up the question of how grand are we? How great is our reach?”

This echo of Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

suggests that Steltzner may not know what’s out there, but he certainly knows how to reach for it.

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