The year 2012 has been a great year for science geeks – or at least those into space exploration (full disclosure: I’m married to one). This past Friday, my spouse and I joined the throngs of people all over California who flocked to observatories, beaches, rooftops, and streets, for a sight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Some spectators chanted “USA! USA!” as it passed overhead. Even in retirement, the Space Shuttle, like all of NASA, symbolizes for many people the best of who we are as a nation.
To me, NASA’s nearly 60-year history is even more than that – it’s a true and powerful story of the positive impact of traditional organization development when practiced over the long haul: strategy, organizational learning, teamwork, leadership, and so on, to support goals stakeholders know will take many years to achieve.
Two friends of mine are aerospace professionals involved in the NASA Mars Rover project, Curiosity
. They were part of the reason why, last month, on August 6, our household sat transfixed before a screen watching Curiosity enter Mars’ atmosphere. When the rover landed, intact and fully functional, after a suspenseful “seven minutes of terror
,” the internet-transmitted sight of group hugs and high-fives at NASA made me glad, but wistful. As with the entire U.S. economy – industries, companies, and people – the last decade has been brutal for NASA. The Shuttle Program was declared finished in 2004. The nation’s priorities have shifted elsewhere. Decades of once-generous government funding have ended – probably forever.
The organization has undertaken the years-long process of reinventing itself for its new environment, but the process has been painful. Many aerospace professionals who spent their entire careers on the Space Program lost their jobs. These are some of the most highly educated professionals in the world; many have nowhere else to go. I watched a “60 Minutes”
program telling the stories of some of these people, and it made me weep.
Almost two decades ago, Peter Drucker wrote what is still one of my favorite articles on strategy and organization development: "The Theory of the Business
," published in the Harvard Business Review
in 1994. He observed that a company must be prepared to reinvent itself as needed, and implied that it could be as often as every three to five years. Last spring, I served as a coach and facilitator for a career transition class at Brandman University
in Irvine. John Hall
, the executive coach who taught it, said professionals in the 21st century must be prepared to change employers every two to five years! In the 21st century, Hall said, we must all become entrepreneurs.
The term “entrepreneur
” is defined in Wikipedia as someone willing to help launch a new venture or enterprise and accept full responsibility for the outcome. “Learn to see yourself as a provider of solutions to the problems businesses everywhere are trying to solve," Hall told the class. "Even when you find employment within a company, never stop seeing yourself that way." Also, he emphasized, never stop expanding your skills. Be ready to reinvent yourself and your career again as the world changes.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of many books on the world of work, titled one of his recent columns “New Rules,”
and delivered the same message: “More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class,” Friedman wrote. “There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler
that captures this new reality: In the future ‘illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.’ Any form of standing still is deadly.”
If Drucker, Hall, and Friedman are correct, the implications for the role of learning and development are huge. The need for constant reinvention is upon us – perhaps even more than for other professions. How do we help our organizations – and the people who work in them – reinvent themselves as needed, in a world requiring them to do so again and again? Also, what does this mean for how we manage our own careers?