Project Management Lessons from NASA

Jerry Madden, a retired employee of the Goddard Space Flight Center, collected over 100 “lessons” learned from project managers he worked with over many years. Some of the items were pretty specific to the space industry or to projects involving government programs, but there were certainly some good nuggets in the lot. Here are some of the items from his list that resonated most with me and my experiences.

  1. Most managers succeed on the strength and skill of their staff.
  2. Never ask management to make a decision that you can make. Assume you have the authority to make decisions unless you know there is a document that states unequivocally that you cannot.
  3. Never make excuses; instead, present plans of actions to be taken.
  4. Not all successful managers are competent and not all failed managers are incompetent. Luck still plays a part in success or failure, but luck favors the competent, hard-working manager.
  5. Documentation does not take the place of knowledge. There is a great difference in what is supposed to be, what is thought to have been, and what the reality is. Documents are normally a static picture in time which is outdated rapidly.
  6. Remember the boss has the right to make decisions, even if you think they are wrong. Tell the boss what you think but, if he still wants it done his way, do your best to make sure the outcome is successful.
  7. Management principles are still the same. It is just the tools that have changed. You still should find the right people to do the work and get out of the way so they can do it.
  8. Whoever you deal with, deal fairly. You may be surprised how often you have to work with the same people. Better they respect you than carry a grudge.
  9. Mistakes are all right, but failure is not. Failure is just a mistake you can't recover from; therefore, try to create contingency plans and alternate approaches for the items or plans that have high risk.
  10. A working meeting has about six people attending. Meetings larger than this are for information transfer.
  11. Running does not take the place of thinking. For yourself, you must take time to smell the roses. For your work, you must take time to understand the consequences of your actions.
  12. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. It is also occasionally the best help you can give. Just listening is all that is needed on many occasions. You may be the boss but, if you constantly have to solve someone's problems, you are working for him or her.
  13. Know your management — some like a good joke; others only like a joke if they tell it.
  14. Integrity means your subordinates trust you.
  15. Never assume someone knows something or has done something unless you have asked them. Even the obvious is overlooked or ignored on occasion — especially in a high-stress activity.
  16. Don't assume you know why senior management has done something. If you feel you need to know, ask. You get some amazing answers that will dumbfound you.
  17. A person's time is very important. You must be careful as a manager that you realize the value of other people's time, i.e., work you hand out and meetings should be necessary. You must, where possible, shield your staff from unnecessary work, i.e., some requests should be ignored or a refusal sent to the requester.
  18. There is only one solution to a weak project manager in industry — get rid of him (or her) fast. The main job of a project manager in industry is to keep the customer happy. Make sure the one working with you knows that “on schedule, on cost, and a good product” — not flattery — is all that makes you happy.
  19. Projects require teamwork to succeed. Remember most teams have a coach and not a boss, but the coach still has to call some of the plays.
  20. There are still some individuals who think important decisions are made in meetings. This is rarely the case. Normally, the decision-makers meet over lunch or have a brief meeting to decide the issue and than (at a meeting called to discuss the issue) make it appear that the decision is made as a result of this discussion.
  21. In political decisions, do not look for logic — look for politics.
  22. Meetings, meetings — A Projects Manager's staff meeting should last 5 minutes minimum — 1 hour max — less than 5 minutes and you probably didn't need the meeting — longer than 1 hour, it becomes a bull session.
  23. Too many project managers think a spoken agreement carries the same weight as one put in writing. It doesn't. People vanish and change positions. Important decisions must be documented.
  24. The project manager who is the smartest man on his project has done a lousy job of recruitment.
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