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5 Stellar Project Management tips from NASA's Bill Ochs

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Guest blog by Nicol Cutts – Stoneseed’s Head of Projects, Professional Services

Isn’t it wonderful when Project Managers get the recognition they deserve upon delivery of a project?

It doesn’t always happen though, so I let out a little yelp of joy when NASA shared amazing pictures taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and among the first taking centre stage was the initiative’s Project Manager, Bill Ochs.

WELL DONE NASA!

Those pictures were breath-taking! “Emerging stellar nurseries”, “individual stars in the Carina Nebula” that were previously obscured, images of “Cosmic Cliffs” seen for the first time thanks to Webb’s cameras’ “capabilities to peer through cosmic dust” - all shedding new light on how stars form! So, you could have forgiven NASA if they’d forgotten those whose hard work had made it possible. It happens.

As a colleague says don’t let the “fanfare drown out the fanks”, but at the point of transition into service, when the focus switches to the deliverables of a project and the business change that the it will facilitate, those with fingerprints all over the project can be overlooked – be honest, at the end of a movie, do you stay behind to read the credits or try to beat the queues out of the cinema car park?

So well done NASA! The images are ace – but your acknowledgement of Ochs and his team are what I really appreciated.

MIGHTY OCHS

Ochs is a pretty amazing PM though.

First, 11 years ago, he inherited a failing project, at stakeholder level there was serious talk of abandoning the mission. 

Secondly, in that broadcast Ochs took time to acknowledge the team behind the success. "As the old saying goes, it takes a village,” he said, “With Webb, it actually took a town of about 20,000 people, over a period of 20-plus years, across 29 US states, and 14 countries." At any one time, Ochs would have a lot of people under him, he recently told the APM (Association for Project Management) Podcast, “I have responsibility for every aspect of the mission. Currently, we’re running between 400–500 people, but at our peak we were well over 1,000 folks.” He always appreciated the work of every one of them!

Thirdly, Ochs also highlighted three key elements to the success of the project – dedication, sacrifice and passion. Dedication often gets a nod, sacrifice less frequently (the late nights, the working weekends and the families of project teams rarely get the appreciation they deserve for their invisible contribution) but passion – honestly, we don’t talk about the passion that ignites our collective brilliance nearly enough. Let’s not be embarrassed! Let’s talk about passion more.

Lastly, Bill Ochs composure under pressure is inspirational. What Ochs delivered here is a project that relied on global collaboration, launched in December 2021 on a European Space Agency (ESA) Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, the high-stakes nature of the launch and the telescope's complexity created issues that would test the mettle of any project manager. Writing for ArsTechnica, Eric Berger noted, “From launch through commissioning, the Webb instrument must undergo 344 actions where a single-point failure could scuttle the telescope” – all this was taking place about 930,000 miles from Earth. Och’s cool, calm forecast ahead of this – "I don't expect any drama."

Before I stop fan-girling! During his chat on the APM Podcast, Bill Ochs shared five tips for successful project management and if you’ll pardon the pun, they’re all out-of-this-world!

Writer Beth Gault has authored a nice article summarising them which I’ll summarise below and you can listen to  APM Podcast here.

BILL OCHS’ TOP FIVE TIPS FOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT

1 – Remember You Are Not Perfect

“Every project manager, whether you’re in NASA or wherever, has their own style and technique … within that style and technique, you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, because none of us are perfect.”

Self-awareness is key, Ochs calls it having a “bartender’s ear” – listen and you’ll hear your project (and your team) reflect your weaknesses.

Ochs said, “I was a good engineer – and note I say was. There are many project managers who think they are still the best engineer out there – but that takes away from your management skills and your ability to be a project manager.”

The PM role, according to Ochs is that of the project’s “chief mitigation person”. The big calls and final decisions are yours to make and listening well is key to making informed choices.

2 - Build in reserves

“You want success. So, you need to balance mission success with the programmatic aspects of your budget and schedule. We slipped our launch date many times; we had a lot of cost growth – and there’s all sorts of stories that go behind that because you need to balance those things.”

Your budget and scope may not be on a par with a NASA flagship mission costing billions, but like Ochs, you don’t want to fail! As he says, a project needs to have reserves, in terms of money and schedule, to allow you to mitigate risks.

3 - Don’t lose sight of the small things

“You can’t take your eye off the things that might seem a little more mundane. It may seem like everyone knows how to do that, but you really can’t take your eyes off, because if you have a small mistake there, that can sometimes lead to penalties on the programmatic side.”

There is a tendency to focus on the “big, complex and challenging”, the more exciting aspects of the project will always demand the greatest level of your attention, but as Ochs says,  you must also keep your eye on the small things.

The JWST sun shield illustrated this. Ochs described it as the “big shiny thing that’s the size of a tennis court” – big and shiny! Attention magnet!

As Beth writes for APM, “It went through environmental testing, which simulates a rocket ride, and at the end there were screws, washers and nuts lying on the floor. The issue turned out to be a missed spec on the drawing, meaning there were not enough threads above the lock nut to fully engage it. The team had to do an audit of the entire spacecraft to fix the issue.”

Ochs said, “We ordered something like 1,700 to 2,000 drawings just to make sure that spec was not left off. We had to take that part apart and redo it. In the end, that cost us six months and probably one million dollars.”

Double-check everything!!!!

4 - Communication is HUGE

Especially lately, probably because of increased remote working, communication is being cited more frequently as a key reason for project failure. Ochs emphasises the importance of good communication right across the team and stakeholders.

“When I came onto the programme there was a lot of turmoil. At our stakeholder level there was talk about cancelling the programme,” he says.

One of his first changes was to bolster communications within the senior team and across all levels of the project.

“It’s that free communication and trying to create a more relaxed atmosphere and not have all these artificial levels of ‘I’m the project manager and you’re the lead system engineer’. I was also a big proponent of managing by walking around and just talking to people.”

Ochs says, “As you start to chat you find you have things in common, and that helps with building that relationship.”

5 - People, people, people

This is the area where I chimed with Bill Och’s the most, especially when he describes people as your “most critical resource” – amen to that! Actually, his speech at the launch of the new photos very much highlighted the contribution from everyone who’d worked on the project.

But your most critical resource is not always a fixed, locked-in, set-in-stone solution and must adapt to match the evolving skills your project needs.

“As you move through the life cycle of that project, you’re going to need to tweak that organisation depending on where you’re at in that life cycle to ensure you have the right people in the right jobs and the right organisational structure for that phase of the project.”

Ochs reckons you should assess this every year, and while I agree that there should be a regular stock take of resources and capabilities, I’d aim to make this an ongoing habit – thanks to Stoneseed’s PMaaS (Project Management as a Service) model you can make changes to resources and personnel as and when they’re needed – rather than wait for your next scheduled assessment.

“You need to be able to trust the folks that are working for you,” Ochs says. “You build that by communicating with them and trusting the skill set they have.”

This level of trust should also be the bedrock of your relationship with your PMaaS partner.

Your IT projects also demand and deserve stellar returns, for rocket fuelled resourcing solutions get in touch!  

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed

Sources

https://arstechnica.com/science/2022/01/nasa-might-just-pull-off-the-james-webb-space-telescope-deployment/

https://www.businessinsider.com/james-webb-team-unveils-nasa-space-telescope-first-images-2022-7?r=US&IR=T

Out-of-this-world project management tips from NASA’s James Web Space Telescope project (apm.org.uk)
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