During Jerry Madden’s 37-year career at NASA, the federal agency launched its first satellite, achieved the first lunar landing, and deployed the Hubble telescope. It also innovated outside the edges, bringing satellite TV, air-cushioned sneakers, and solar panels to the masses. In other words, NASA was an idea factory running at full steam.
Madden, who retired in 1995 as associate director of flight projects at Goddard Space Flight Center, was critical to the operation. As one of NASA’s premiere project managers, he saw to it that great ideas became tangible innovations; he coordinated the technology, teams, and bureaucracy needed to propel science forward.
Along the way, Madden also curated and penned a now-infamous list of 128 lessons for project managers, which still circulates through NASA today. Here are a few of our favorites:
9. Never undercut your staff in public (i.e., don’t make decisions on work that you have given them to do in public meetings). Even if you direct a change, never take the responsibility for implementing away from your staff.
15. Wrong decisions made early can be salvaged, but “right” decisions made late cannot.
60. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. It is also occasionally the best help you can give. Just listening is all that is needed on many occasions. You may be the boss, but if you constantly have to solve someone’s problems, you are working for him.
87. Bastards, gentlemen, and ladies can be project managers. Lost souls, procrastinators, and wishy-washers cannot.
116. Let your staff argue you into doing something even if you intended to do it anyway. It gives them the feeling that they won one! There are a lot of advantages to gamesmanship, as long as no one detects the game.
128. The project manager who is the smartest man on his project has done a lousy job of recruitment.
Ed note: The link to Madden’s full list has gone offline since the government shutdown. We will update this article when it is again made available.
By all accounts, the NASA idea engine has sputtered and failed in recent history. Funding is partially to blame, but even the agency itself recognizes that “poor communication” and “bad management” are barriers to modern-day innovation.
What can be done about it? Long before NASA’s challenges escalated into a crisis, Madden offered this insight: “An agency’s age can be estimated by the number of reports and meetings it has. The older it gets, the more the paperwork increases and the less product is delivered per dollar. Many people have suggested that an agency self-destruct every 25 years and be reborn starting from scratch.”