NASA’s Project Management Learning LAB



By Lawrence Suda

New York, USA


Maintaining a talented pool of project managers at NASA is critical to the space program, scientific community and the general public. NASA’s Academy for Project Program Engineering Leadership (APPEL) actively promotes a unique disciplinary cultural approach that goes beyond the boundaries of conventional project management. One program out of a series of training programs is the Lab. The Lab is a five-day workshop using various learning technologies, including: simulations, 360 leadership and team assessments and promoting the unconventional mixing of disparate learning approaches to create a powerful learning design. The lab encourages people to Think-Act-Reflect in real time just like the must do on their real-life projects.

Key words: Simulations, Leadership, Management, Learning Lab, NASA

Introduction: Practicing the Game of Project Management

The project leader reached for his fourth cup of coffee. It was only 9:30 am and he was already stressed by all the bad news: One key team member resigned; the client was upset about the quality and schedule and wanted to meet immediately; and his manager was not happy about the potential cost overruns of 50%. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong and worse yet all at the same time. To add more fire to this particularly hellish week: there was a new round of complaints about a key engineer’s abrasive style, and technical quality of work. He was sent out for some technical training. That’s five days of work we’ll never get back. A consultant was hired “on the cheap” — only to learn, once again, that you get what you pay for. He was fired, which was a huge distraction and waste of time and money.

Now the good news: these events didn’t happen anywhere in what we call “real life” and in some sense they didn’t “happen” at all. Despite the rocky performance and, fortunate for this project leader, all these problems were the direct result of a project simulation exercise used by NASA to help train current and future project managers. The entire experience unfolded on the screen of a laptop computer running a “Project Management Leadership Simulation,” as part of the NASA’s “Project Management Leadership Laboratory.” The program uses a computer based simulation designed and developed by the Palatine Group, a New York based company.

Why” Simulations

Virtually every significant marketplace innovation and success in recent history is a direct result of extensive prototyping and simulation. Airplanes, automobile design, animated motion pictures, personal computers, leveraged buyouts and mergers, DNA biotechnology, are all the direct result of shifting from physical clay models to virtual models. In all these instances, the most important raw material is and has always been the interplay between the individuals and the expression of their ideas. To paraphrase Leroi-Gourhan the evolution of the human mind is basically the evolution of its expressive means. The same thing is true for the evolution of projects and our organizations. In today’s world it is fashionable to assert that managerial minds are possessed by “mental models” that invariably determine what decisions get made. But this is one of the truisms that obscure a larger reality. The mind gets far more credit that it deserves according to Jay Forrester, the father of systems dynamics. According to Forrester, “Our mental models are fuzzy.” They are incomplete and imprecise. Furthermore, within one individual, a mental model changes with time and even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion and as the conversation shifts, so does their mental model. Each participant in the conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the topic. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open.

In order to have actionable meaning, fuzzy ideas (mental models) in a project manager’s mind must ultimately be externalized in representations the entire project team and customer can grasp. Simulations can help mental models become less tacit and more tangible and actionable. Simulations engage the project team’s thinking in the explicit. They externalize thought and spark dialogue. A truly effective simulation goes beyond the visual to appeal to the tactile and kinesthetic. A genuine, authentic model activates the mind and adrenal glands and engages people in conversation and debates that forge collaboration and ignite innovative approaches to tough project issues. Consequently, good simulations are not just tools for individual thought, but are inherently social media mechanisms.

The business environment is so turbulent that that running a business or managing a project team can be as treacherous as piloting an aircraft. The uncomfortable reality in most organizations is that people are making more complex decisions in less time, with fewer resources and no margin for error. Being great requires something few people have — opportunities to practice. That’s the value of simulation. . Business simulations let project managers sit in a virtual cockpit and practice their technique.

Actors, athletes, and musicians wouldn’t dream of performing without practicing. But how do business people practice? Mostly they attend the school of hard knocks — encountering new situations, making mistakes, learning from what goes wrong. But learning from real mistakes gets expensive — both for the company and the people who make them. Simulation creates a “virtual practice field” that allows people and teams to test assumptions and experiment with ideas without having to suffer financial reversals or career setbacks. You can compare business simulations to what goes on in the NFL between games. “Football coaches and players look at game film because it helps them understand what happened. In a game film, away from the confusion of real action, each player can step back and look at the whole field, not just his corner of it. Simulations create that same whole-field perspective an element of control: Imagine if you could run game films — and change the play! What if the coach could say, ‘Thomas, you should have blocked this guy, not that guy, and if you did, here’s what would have happened?’ That’s what simulation does.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the PMI Global Congress North America 2016 conference in San Diego, California, USA and included in the conference proceedings. It is republished here with the author’s permission.



About the Author

Lawrence V. Suda

Palatine Group / Management Worlds
New York, USA



Lawrence Suda
is the CEO and an Officer at Palatine group/Management Worlds, Inc. with over 30 years project and program management consulting and training experience to numerous government and private sector companies. The Palatine Group/Management Worlds specializes in creating computer-based simulations for project management and leadership training. Larry’s career emphasis is on organization behavior, project management, operations management, strategic management and enterprise-wide project management for leading companies and government agencies throughout the world, including: NASA, US Navy, Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Energy, Health & Human Services , Agriculture, DAU and others and in the private sector to such companies as General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, ALCOA, URS, Verizon, Boeing, Lockheed/Martin, Hewlett-Packard, Perot Systems, PPG Industries, United States Steel and others.

Before founding Palatine Group/Management Worlds, Larry worked in the private and public sectors at the US Environmental Protection Agency and was an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland. Mr. Suda is a frequent speaker at PMI and IPMA Conferences in the United States and Europe and has led workshops for PMI’s Seminars World in various locations around the World. He is an adjunct professor at Drexel University teaching Global Project Leadership.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

To view other works by Larry Suda, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/lawrence-suda/