At NASA, Introducing a New Openness to Innovation

By Scott Kirsner |  April 10, 2020

If you work in an organization where certain departments feel they are plenty innovative already, you know how much of a challenge it can be to introduce any new methodology or approach. 

Omar Hatamleh, Chief Innovation Officer – Engineering, NASA Johnson Space Center

So let’s talk about NASA, and the Johnson Space Center in particular. It’s a place with a pretty solid track record of breakthroughs — like getting Americans into orbit and to the surface of the Moon; designing the Orion deep space exploration vehicle; and leading International Space Station operations. JSC is also working with commercial partners like Boeing and SpaceX to develop new vehicles capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

In that kind of forward-leaning, engineering-centric, and safety-obsessed culture, how do you suggest that there might be different ways to innovate? That was the question that Omar Hatamleh began grappling with in 2015, when he became the first Chief Innovation Officer for the engineering group at Johnson Space Center, based in Houston.

“Changing people’s minds and getting them out of their comfort zone is a difficult task,” Hatamleh says. “Everything is personality-based.” We interviewed Hatamleh to get his advice on how he thinks about making change happen — as well as key future drivers of change like artificial intelligence and open innovation. (Excerpts of the interview also appear in our latest research report, “Creating a More Innovative Culture.”)

How the Role was Created

The role of Chief Innovation Officer was established when I finished my time as Deputy Chief Scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center. I came back to Houston, and wanted to do something different. It’s a different era now; we are working with commercial partners, and starting to put in place strategies for going to the Moon and Mars. So we established a new role to be able to tackle new challenges and work collaboratively.

It doesn’t have resources [or staff allocated to it]. It is like an advisory role. But the focus was trying to come up with new, innovative strategies, and align with people outside of conventional industries, to see how other people look at things from different perspectives, how they come up with solutions, and how they deal with failures.

Influence Culture by Demonstrating Value

Changing organizational culture within large institutions is almost an impossible thing to do. But you can start having some influence by showing value from people using different ways of thinking and aligning — and then trying to sell it more broadly within the organization. 

Participants at the inaugural Cross-Industry Innovation Summit at Johnson Space Center.

Events and talks can help. We created the Cross-Industry Innovation Summit, to bring together diverse industries and people like the VP of Uber, the Chief Innovation Officer from L’Oreal, the CEO of United HealthCare, and a famous chef — people completely unrelated to our field. The summits were streamed and recorded so NASA employees not present at the summit could participate. We had brown bag lunches once a month to discuss case studies internally, and inspire new ways of thinking, new ways of looking at things.

It can also make sense to align with VC [venture capital] firms and incubators, because sometimes organizations are working on trying to solve a problem, and that solution might have already existed at the startup level, but nobody knew it was happening. Having an insight into the startup world can prove very valuable in helping tackle organizational challenges.

The ‘Third Rails’ of Innovation

What are the third rails of doing innovation work? You don’t want to forcefully impact how people innovate or run their business. They will see that as being nosy, taking away their responsibilities. But you can inspire them and create a mature environment to allow creativity and innovation to flourish.

It comes back to middle management, in many cases. When executives says, “We’re going to be innovative, and create new value, employees start working on that, and it can stop at middle management. Middle management may have the perception that if [the innovation efforts] fail, it really reflects badly on them. A way to fix that is that senior executives put it in the performance evaluation for middle managers — “you have to take risks and do things differently” — and give them backup if they fail. 

‘Go Out of Your Way to Put People Together’

One of the things we did was a collaboration with different industries. People initially didn’t see much value from working across other sectors. But we eventually developed several relationships with diverse industries, like the oil and gas industry. At first, employees on both sides didn’t see value in working together or exploring synergies. But when we put them together in a room, they coalesced and engaged beyond what we expected, and it was difficult to get them to disengage. You have to sometimes go out of your way to put people together and get them to explore collective possibilities and synergies.

The problem with innovation…is the results often show up after a long time. People look at how much is being spent, and what’s the return, when it could take years. But there are short-term gains to be found in almost any organization.

Show the Skeptics Concrete Examples

Changing people’s minds and getting them out of their comfort zone is a difficult task. Everything is personality-based. Some people are more open, and for others it might take them longer. You can impact some people, and never impact others. But if you can have a small impact on the organization, it’s better than not having any impact at all.

For the skeptics, you have to show them examples: This is how much people saved, how fast we were able to tackle a tough challenge, and how much less resources were needed.

The Age of AI and Open Innovation

Eventually, with artificial intelligence and with open innovation, it will be different. The gulf between jobs being done in conventional ways and new ways will be so large that we’ll have no choice but to embrace it. Imagine being able to do a job in an hour, versus a week. The more we move forward, the more this contrast is starting to show up. Everyone needs to start adopting these tools and jump on the bandwagon. They are just orders of magnitude more efficient, and finding efficiencies is one way you can deliver significant results as an innovator. Examples include leveraging open innovation platforms and capitalizing on AI advanced systems that can bring enormous efficiencies into organization.


Photos courtesy of NASA. Download our complete 37-page research report, “Creating a More Innovative Culture.”