In recent years, more and
more leaders of private and public organizations alike
have realized that knowledge is the chief asset of organizations
and the key to maintaining a sustainable and competitive
advantage. Organizational learning means the continuous
acquisition and testing of experience and the transformation
of that experience into knowledge that is made accessible
to everyone within the organization.
However, creating a “learning organization”
is only half the solution. In addition to the familiar
“learning curve,” companies should establish
a “forgetting curve,” which is the rate
at which a company can unlearn those habits that hinder
future success. Pursuing unlearning, however, is not
easy. First, very often people are simply unaware of
the need to unlearn (e.g., they are unaware that the
old assumptions regarding the world have changed), and,
second, it is always difficult to undergo a change.
The following examples, taken from Shared
Voyage, show just how difficult it can be. Shared
Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects
focuses on four projects: the Advanced Composition Explorer
(NASA), the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (U.S.
Air Force), the Pathfinder Solar-Powered Airplane (NASA),
and the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (U.S.
Air Force). Each project is presented as a case study
comprises stories collected from key members of the
project teams. The book which was co-authored by A.
Laufer, T. Post and E. Hoffman, was recently published
by the NASA History Office. One of the main objectives
of the book is to encourage unlearning of outdated concepts.
Sometimes it takes another person to help you change
your mind-set. During the integration and test phase
of the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) project,
the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) fell behind. NASA
Project Manager Don Margolies thought that the way to
deal with it was to order their team to work either
weekends or double shifts. But Mary Chiu, APL Project
Manager, was steadfastly opposed to telling her people
to work overtime. Her people were salaried, and she
wasn’t going to order them to put in more hours.
They argued about it for a while, finally asking the
Chief Engineer at APL to join them for a meeting of
minds. Don hoped that meeting would not turn into a
very divisive discussion. What happened instead was
that Mary pointed out something to Don that he realized
should have been a no-brainer. In fact, it was then
so obvious to him that he was embarrassed that he hadn’t
realized it himself. “All we have to do is make
it known that we are behind schedule,” Mary said.
“Professionals don’t have to be reminded
that they have a job to do… they will rise to
the challenge on their own.”
Realizing she was right, Don went back and told NASA
management what Mary had said. She couldn’t put
the extra hours on the schedule, but she’d assured
him that the work would get done. Ultimately, they recovered
the lost time. Don knew that Mary had taught him a lesson
in basic psychology: it’s always better to let
people come up with a good idea and implement it, than
for you to force it down their throat.
At times, the role of leaders is to help their team
change their mind-set. During source selections for
the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) project,
Air Force Program Director Terry Little told the team
that he wanted this phase to be completed in six months.
Truth be told, he would’ve been happy with seven,
or even eight—but he wanted to set almost unrealistic
goals. Why? “I didn’t want a schedule that
the team felt they could achieve just by working weekends
or figuring out a handful of inventive ways to do things,”
he said. “I wanted something so outrageous that
it would cause them to at first, give up—and then,
to step back and examine their assumptions, their beliefs,
everything they’d learned from past experiences
and ask themselves with a clean slate: what do I really
need to do to achieve this goal?”
And that’s exactly what they did. The team actually
completed the source selection in five months.
“When we talked about it afterwards,” Terry
said, “the team discovered that they hadn’t
known how capable they could be if they just quit thinking
about things in the way they had always thought of them.”
Of course, sometimes teams are not ready to think of
things in new ways. The Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air
Missile program had been around for 20 years, and Program
Director Judy Stokley knew it was time for a major reform.
It wasn’t easy because of the type of partnership
her team had with the contractor. If the contractor
needed to change something, he had to submit an Engineering
Change Proposal, and the government had to approve it.
The contractor documented every change in parts, down
to the lowest-level nut, bolt, or screw, and sent change
proposals all day long. The government paid him to make
those changes, or they didn’t get done. Judy used
to say, “If I want my contractor to flush the
toilet in Tucson, I have to write him a contract letter
and pay him to do it.”
She wanted very much to change that mindset, and get
the contractors to have a “heart and soul”
relationship with their products. If they could write
a good, simple set of performance specifications that
the contractor would control, and the government would
pay a fair price for the product, Judy believed it could
be< a win-win situation for both sides.
But she also didn’t want any claims against her.
The program had been under litigation for one thing
or another since it started. When Judy took over as
the Program Director, there were twelve standing requests
for equitable adjustment filed by the contractors. She
told the contractors straight out that she couldn’t
team with people who filed claims against her. She told
them, “I’m going to help you pay for everything,
I’m going to help you make a decent profit, and
you are going to make sure that we have a good product
At a meeting, she laid out all her plans for reform
to the contractor, and at first she was met with a lot
of nodding heads. Then, the contractor’s Chief
Engineer stood up and addressed his Vice President,
“Boss, I’ve got to make sure that before
you agree to this, you understand what she’s saying.
Because if you do, I don’t think there’s
any way you’ll agree to it.”
That’s when the room became extremely tense.
“Right now,” the same contractor continued,
“if we change something, the government pays.
She’s telling you that from now on if we change
something, we pay.” From that moment on, it was
clear that the contractors would not embrace any type
of change. Judy felt the urge to laugh out loud; the
attitude of those in the room was indicative of the
same problems plaguing the industry.
Then, as a result of a merger with another company,
the Vice President was replaced. The new leader was
able to see the opportunities of Judy’s reform
plans, and together they transformed the mind-set and
behavior of their teams.
Even though it may be difficult to convince others
to “unlearn” old habits, the hardest thing
can be to “unlearn” your own. In this issue
of ASK, John DelFrate’s article mentioned former
AeroVironment Project Manager Ray Morgan and his struggle
to overcome his tendency to micromanage. After managing
a solar-powered flight project on which the young test
pilot was nearly killed, Ray says he became “exactly
the kind of boss that I said I would never be.”
Staying on at AeroVironment, he was working what should
have been “the ultimate job.” And yet some
days he felt so much stress on the drive to work that
he almost threw up. He tried to control every aspect
of his projects, working up to 100 hours a week himself,
and killing the morale of everyone he worked with. He
had to control everything; nothing happened without
his approval. People who had been so grateful to come
to work for him were burned out in two or three years.
He knew he’d have to either quit or find a solution.
Around this time, Ray’s wife saw a PBS special
on Edward Deming, who had a revolutionary approach to
management. He talked about incorporating “The
Golden Rule” and the Scientific Method into your
style. It was the first philosophy that really spoke
to Ray, so he decided to take a night class at UCLA
on the same topic.
He saw his professor’s teaching style that utilized
the brains of the classroom, and he began to reflect
on how he could do this within his own projects. He
began the difficult task of “letting go”
and admits that at first it was terrifying. But by the
time he joined the ERAST team to develop Pathfinder,
he says, “I was not only a different man, but
a better manager. I had finally begun to be a leader,
and was leading my division in a transformation that
enabled me to draw full value from all of the brains
of my workforce.”
Whether the concepts conveyed through these examples
call for learning (that is, adding on new concepts),
or for unlearning (that is, letting go of some old concepts),
depends to a great extent on the set of beliefs that
the particular project participant (or reader) has developed
throughout his/her experience. One thing, however, is
clear. Today, in our competitive and dynamic environment,
everyone is expected to unlearn, and quite often. New
ideas are breaking traditional molds and updating old
axioms: “Live and unlearn.” “Gone