Earth to everyone: we need your help! (Open innovation at NASA)
NASA recognizes the power of open innovation to solve tough problems and engage broader audiences, but the mindset shift comes at a price.
When it comes to outer space, recent history has proven that the answers to the toughest problems can come from people who have no experience with space travel at all. A 22-year-old college student from Massachusetts built a robotic machine to excavate lunar soil. A retired radio frequency engineer reliably predicted the occurrence of solar flares. 
Historically, NASA, the federal agency responsible for scientific and technological achievements in human spaceflight, aeronautics, and space science, evolved as a hierarchical, closed system. Innovation in space during the 20th century occurred behind closed doors with open government wallets, as the brightest minds in the United States and Soviet Union battled for dominance. Around the turn of the century, the US banded together with international partners to create the International Space Station. Too expensive to build alone, this project introduced NASA to collaboration and soliciting ideas from the outside.
Over the last decade, budget cuts, the commercialization of space exploration, and international competition have flung open NASA’s doors to the masses. Today, NASA models open innovation at its finest for the rest of the federal government by inviting outsiders to augment internal innovation efforts through prize competitions, focused challenges, and crowdsourced solutions.
Open innovation provides invaluable benefits to NASA. Challenges free the federal agency from awarding expensive contracts to past performers with unproven solutions for the future; instead, NASA can pay only for proven results. The prestige and validation, not to mention the cash prize, often incentivize teams to invest significant funds, either their own or fundraised, without tapping into taxpayer funds. Lastly, engaging those from outside the organization endorses risk-taking and out-of-discipline approaches that would likely be deemed too audacious for standardized experimentation within NASA.
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Unfortunately for all of us, most research and development operations spend disproportionate time seeking solutions at the expense of posing the problem for others to solve. The traditional R&D approach within NASA takes three to five years, relies heavily on negotiations and hierarchy, and induces risk-averse approaches. Meanwhile, the open innovation model speeds up the process from three to six months on average, requires no specialized expertise, and operates without boundaries or constraints.
NYU Stern professor Hila Lifshitz-Assaf studies the effect of open innovation on professional identity within NASA, and she has proven that NASA scientists and engineers themselves serve as the greatest obstacle to open innovation success. The “open innovation model,” she writes, “threatens to deprive the profession of its most prestigious task.” In order to overcome this barrier, managers must support a shift in focus from the “how” to the “why.” Compensation and rewards must encourage solution seeking, rather than problem-solving patents and publications.
Despite the hard work still ahead, looking for answers from the outside has already affected positive change on internal operations. Observing the speed and success of crowdsourced innovation, R&D teams within NASA have revised their organizational charts to poke holes in silos, redesigned their physical spaces to encourage collaboration, and gathered information from outsider submissions to inform their internal projects. As one R&D engineer put it, “The open source mindset transfers us from the innovation-resistant ‘Not Invented Here’ attitude to ‘Proudly Found Elsewhere.’”
Tough problems demand fresh ideas and nearly limitless funds. NASA cannot, and should not, explore space exploration in a vacuum. However, as the balance of power shifts from government to commercial activity, how can NASA ensure that partnership discoveries benefit the masses, and not just the powerful few? Similarly, what can NASA do to retain its top talent in a world where the best ideas can come from anywhere? As the world gears up to put a (wo)man on Mars, it is vital that NASA communicates and facilitates an open innovation strategy with close consideration for their most valuable resource: their team.
 Hall, L. (Ed.). (2015, March 04). Success Story: Regolith Excavation Challenge. https://www.nasa.gov/content/regolith-excavation-challenge-0
 How Open Innovation is Solving Some of NASA’s Trickiest Problems. Knowledge@Wharton (2013, April 03). http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-open-innovation-is-solving-some-of-nasas-trickiest-problems/
 Gonzalez, L. H. (2018, April 30). The Reinvention of NASA. https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-reinvention-of-nasa
 Hall, L. (Ed.). (2015, March 12). Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing Advance NASA’s Mission. https://www.nasa.gov/content/prizes-challenges-and-crowdsourcing-advance-nasa-s-mission-and-outreach
 Sloane, P. (2011). A guide to open innovation and crowdsourcing: Advice from leading experts in the field. London: Kogan Page.
 Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2018). Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(4), 746–782. https://doi.org/10.1177/000183921774
 Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila, Michael Tushman, and Karim R. Lakhani. “A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open Innovation.” Harvard Business Review (website) (May 29, 2018).
 Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2018). Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation.
Student comments on Earth to everyone: we need your help! (Open innovation at NASA)
Extremely well-written – would expect to read something of this caliber in print. I do wonder if the author might consider a more balanced perspective on the role of “traditional” scientific staff at NASA. Without understanding the particulars of anecdotal evidence cited above, I presume that these staff may be instrumental in identifying high-quality ideas amongst the crowd and realizing their technical potential. However, from what is written, it seems that promoting a more open-minded discovery culture would allow NASA to further develop these capabilities amongst internal talent.
Stellar piece, no pun intended. The author argues persuasively that NASA is uniquely suited to benefit from open innovation. It is an area of high public interest, promises fame and credibility, and, of course, is in desperate need of funding. The author encourages the reader to not only consider the impact of open innovation on NASA as a company, but to grapple with what it means for NASA’s employees. In fact, the question becomes, what does it mean to be an employee when contributions to a company can come from the public? On the one hand, I would argue that employees roles move higher up the decision ladder in response to open innovation. Rather than being tasked with being individual contributors, an employee’s job becomes coordinating, assessing, and integrating the suggestions they receive from the public. Traditionally, winning a design competition would come with promises of lucrative partnerships, supply deals or consulting contracts. In the case of NASA, whose budget, projects and ambitions are so uncertain, how can you motivate corporations to undertake serious research when the prospect of financial gain is so tenuous?
Throughout this article, the author provides a unique perspective by balancing her discussion the powers of open innovation with the reality that these new practices are difficult to adopt. Most notably, the author articulates that the human mindset limits the progress and adaptation to these technologies. This led me to think of how the human mindset can impact the spread of other technologies such as 3D printing food products or using machine learning to analyze our shopping behaviors. It is not the construction of the technology that is limited, but rather how humans adopt to it.
Going back to the article, the author’s argument can further be defended by discussing the Human Health and Performance Center that NASA has established (https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20140006960.pdf). Through this initiative, NASA has created several projects that benefit the learning of this expansive organization and the paper includes details on how the program was established. Overall, this author constructs a truly through-provikng argument.
I would have liked to see a couple of specific examples of things that NASA has accomplished from open innovation. Nevertheless, the discussion on the impact of open innovation on NASA’s own organization is very interesting. Ultimately, NASA’s awkward positioning between scientific dreamer of humanity’s future and bureaucratic department limited by taxpayer funding and national security puts it in a difficult situation when it comes to any sort of innovation. It will be interesting to see if these different incentive structures between NASA and the commercial space industry lead to very different types of innovation.
The question around how NASA can retain its top talent in a world where the best ideas can come from anywhere is an interesting one that I believe other large companies who’ve adopted open innovation processes grapple with on a daily basis. I believe it comes down to identifying what the highest value-add tasks are, where expertise and sound judgement continue to play a big role. Even if a solution might come from outside NASA, their experts will still need to first figure out a way to select the winning idea, then once selected, test this idea and perhaps even iterate to come up with the final version of the product. Sound judgement and expertise will continue to be required throughout the R&D process–so they can frame this to their employees as freeing up their time to focus on other tasks which require their judgement. Between AI and open innovation, jobs are already being disrupted everywhere. Now it’s just up to companies to figure out how to retrain their employees to shift their focus to new areas where human cognition is still essential.
Great piece! I’m used to reading about open innovation at younger companies or those in the tech industry where crowdsourcing/open-sourcing is just part of the business, so I haven’t thought about the cultural requirements needed before. While I agree that there may be some retention risk of existing talent, I believe the open innovation contests serve as a great recruitment funnel and would ultimately be positive for the team. Similar to your point about NASA only having to pay for proven solutions, by hiring successful contest participants, NASA already has a strong filter for performance. Bringing this talent in house would hopefully improve the collaborative culture and increase the likelihood that winning solutions would actually be implemented.
Very insightful article. It appears that NASA is having to adjust to a new place in the world. The author clearly states the benefits of the open innovation at NASA. It is allowing NASA to fund ideas that have a higher chance of success. It is allowing solutions to come from the brilliant minds around the country. It is reducing the need for tax-payer dollars in a time when governments are more fiscally constrained. It encourages risk-taking and provides freedom to explore “wild” solutions. All of these are positive develops and they should continue to be supported by NASA through the new open innovation model. However, it appears that the R&D teams and the engineers at NASA might not like this approach as much because it undermines the traditional role of the institution in developing solutions and patents that bring prestige to NASA and its employees. To bridge this divide NASA should focus on building strong partnerships with the companies and institutions it collaborates with. NASA needs to position itself as a governmental body that exists to spur on the development of space exploration regardless of where it comes from. It has to be seen as the entity you want to have on your team if you are serious about the space industry. As the industry becomes driven more by private activities, NASA must embrace its new supporting role so it continues to be viewed as the key player in the industry. Also, if some of these ideas turn into viable companies I can see existing NASA employees being poached to go work at them.
I enjoyed reading this, especially the details around valuing the diversity of thought derived from various backgrounds of people involved. Though, is there an implicit assumption that sourcing talent must come from within the United States? As a follow-up, what portion of NASA work would classify as a level of secrecy requiring US citizenship? Given that recent successes in open innovation efforts (e.g., Netflix) have often come from non-US teams, it is not hard to imagine that NASA’s success with these programs will be limited, relative to organizations that can source form the global talent pool.
The article does a great job of showcasing how NASA uses Open Innovation to gather the wisdom of the crowd and expand its solution space beyond the walls of NASA to the world. The article asks the question: “What can NASA do to retain its top talent in a world where the best ideas can come from anywhere?” It is known that A type people like to work together with other A type people, while the B type people try to surround themselves with C type people so they will feel better about themselves. In order to retain top talent NASA can ensure their people that they will keep working with the brightest people on the plane – as A people prefer that. NASA can leverage the open innovation platform as a recruitment funnel extension. By opening up some of NASA’s challenges to the world and inviting the world to work on these problems, some brilliant people with amazing ideas and capabilities will emerge, and this will be an opportunity to find top talent, which NASA might have not found in their traditional recruiting channels, and therefore helping maintain a high level of top talent at NASA.