Guest Column

Lessons About Culture From NASA’s Experience

by JERRY L. PATTERSON AND ZACK KELEHEAR

If you think organizational culture is just about squishy slogans far removed from your real world, you may want to check out the recent report on NASA’s Columbia tragedy.

As you recall, on Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle disintegrated on its return to earth, prompting an independent investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Its report, which concludes that NASA administrators need to pay serious attention to organizational culture as if lives depend on it, carries several lessons for school leaders.

By organizational culture, we are referring to the cumulative impact over time of how three sets of dynamics interact:

  • What we say we value compared to what we actually value;
  • What we say we do compared to what we actually do; and
  • What we actually do compared to what we actually value.

The greater the alignment between each set of dynamics, the greater the health of your organization’s culture. Now let’s apply these dynamics to three powerful findings from the NASA report that bear striking relevancy to school leaders.

Competing Values
In the NASA culture, managers professed three major values: a culture of safety, a culture of schedule efficiency and a culture of open communication. NASA’s initial briefing to the investigating board on the safety programs espoused a risk-averse philosophy that empowered employees to stop an operation “at the mere glimmer of a problem.” However, while NASA leaders were giving lip service to the extreme importance of safety, their personnel cutbacks along with increased pressure to deliver missions faster and cheaper produced a collision in values. Efficiency was the winner and safety was the loser.

• Lesson for school leaders: Even with the best of intentions, organizations can’t devote equal attention to all of the important cultural values. Something has to give when sundry values compete for your organization’s time and energy. Make sure your organization is firm and clear about which cultural values matter most. And make sure what you really do in daily practice is aligned with what you truly value.

Shaping Culture
Leaders predictably underestimate their influence on the organization’s culture. In the NASA report, the board didn’t mince words: “Leaders create culture. It is their responsibility to change it.” NASA leaders shaped culture to the point of catastrophe.

NASA managers said the agency had a strong safety culture, but the same leaders made organizational decisions that eroded NASA’s ability to assure mission safety. NASA managers said with confidence that everyone was encouraged to speak up about safety issues, but the board uncovered considerable evidence to the contrary. NASA managers designed and reinforced a bureaucratic structure that kept important safety information from reaching key leaders. What the leaders rewarded in organizational practices sent strong messages about what the management culture really valued. The board observed, “This kind of doublespeak by top managers affects other people’s decisions and actions without their even realizing it.”

• Lesson for school leaders: Like it or not, people at all levels of the organization take cues from you daily about what you value culturally. The messages you send as leader shape what people do throughout the organization’s culture. And what the culture does over time becomes the outward measure of the embedded set of core values driving the organization, those values that you reinforce in your role as school leader. You have the power to shape a healthy culture. Conversely, as learned from the NASA experience, you have the power to sow seeds of destruction.

Blind Spots
Organizational blind spots usually evolve over time, rather than pop up overnight. They represent undetected misalignment between what the organization says it values versus what it really values, what it says it does versus what it really does, or what it really does versus what it actually values.

The board found a blind spot in NASA’s culture in the form of cultural fences that impaired communication between managers and engineers. Both privately and publicly, managers repeatedly expressed a value of open, risk-taking communication throughout the organizational structure. In reality, major misalignment existed between professed values and actual practices. Over time, and likely unintentionally, NASA experienced cultural drift to a norm of closed communication where engineers didn’t feel safe to challenge the leaders’ strategies, even when life was at stake.

• Lesson for school leaders: If blind spots can occur in NASA that ultimately put people in jeopardy, blind spots clearly can develop in education, too. As a school leader, you need to systematically collect and review concrete, unbiased data about the degree of alignment between the three sets of dynamics shaping your organization’s culture. Avoid the temptation to have culture reviews conducted by district staff. In our view, such reviews need unclouded perspectives afforded only to those who have the requisite detachment to make an accurate determination of culture dynamics.

Jerry Patterson, a former superintendent, is a professor of leadership studies at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, 901 13th St. S., Birmingham, AL 35294. E-mail: jpat@uab.edu. He is the author of the newly released Coming Even Cleaner About Organizational Change. Zach Kelehear, a former school district personnel director, is an associate professor in the leadership studies department.