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Innovation, NASA-Style: 1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration

Nasa sign.
NASA’s need for innovation is near-constant.

NASA has driven technological innovation in ways that might surprise you. The space program has delivered innovation everywhere from food safety to materials science to medicine. NASA didn’t get there by luck or sheer intellect. As Carissa Callini, Ryon Stewart, and Jeff Doi of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation explain on the latest IdeaScale Nation podcast, it’s a tradition of hard work.

Launching Excellence

Much of the work at NASA is about tiny, tiny details: how to shave a little weight off a battery, how to eliminate parts in a machine to reduce the risk of failure, or how to make a system more intuitive. There are thousands of these little challenges that need to be resolved.

“One of the things that all three of us kind of dabble in, in different forms, is a challenge coordination. We are Sherpas for our teams and we really guide them through the entire process,” explains Callini, leader of the [email protected] program, NASA’s internal crowdsourcing platform. [email protected] draws from the many intellectual resources across NASA to come up with novel solutions to problems. She elaborates that challenges and solutions have “to be actionable so that the challenge owners and the technical teams or non-technical teams can take those solutions and move them forward.”

One example was a challenge of time management. Recently, the International Space Station found itself with some extra crew time, and it needed to determine a way to fill it quickly. Out of twenty proposals, nine were selected to move forward, and, most relevantly, the ISS team saved nearly a million dollars by making full use of their time in orbit.

Inspiration is amazing, but it’s also just the beginning.

1 Percent Inspiration, 99 Percent Perspiration

One thing the team makes clear across the board is that innovation management is not easy work. On the podcast, they discuss a slide drawn from the early days of the space program, explaining that getting to a launch, literal or metaphorical, is 99 percent perspiration. Having the idea is just the start.

Indeed, much of the team’s work is drawing from external stakeholders. NASA has a long history of working with industry giants such as GE and Microsoft, but for many of these challenges, they’ve found that the issue is often already addressed by a smaller company for a different industry. They note, however, that there are two hurdles to overcome.

The first is understanding precisely what a team needs. Often crowdsourcing tools help with refining, not the solution, but rather the problem in the first place. Once that’s set, it becomes a question of finding the solution and then integrating it into how NASA works. Again, this is often where innovation strategy comes into its own; by incorporating people across the organization, NASA is able to draw on multiple perspectives and develop the right solution.

Innovation will always be a challenge, especially in an organization like NASA, where the list of obstacles to overcome is ever-growing and changing. Innovation software can help NASA teams keep on top of the list, and achieve the grand scientific missions we’ve come to expect. To learn more about how idea management platforms drive innovation, join our newsletter today!