Lessons from NASA: Working Effectively Despite Slashed Budgets

From the Apollo moon landing to the planned mission to Mars, NASA is a standout when it comes to innovative leadership. The space agency has been successful in most of its endeavors despite frequent and sometimes bone-deep cuts to their operating budgets. So why not take the lead from NASA when your own engineering department is looking at substantial cutbacks?

  1. Figure out what’s most essential to your mission. Back in 2013, when the space agency faced nearly $900 million in budget cuts due to sequestration, NASA administrators had to make some tough choices. One area they chose to downsize was the implementation of some interesting—but non-critical—small Earth science programs.


As the leader of an engineering team, it’s up to you to look at the big picture for your department and organization. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices of the smaller programs to ensure that you meet your bigger goals.


  1. Find alternative flight paths to success. One program that NASA had to reduce significantly was the development of space vehicles that could take its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA was working with SpaceX on this project, but slowed the project’s trajectory because there were alternative ways it could use to get its astronauts on board the spacecraft. (The astronauts continued to hitch rides on other countries’ space flights.)


If you have to make a decision about which mission-critical area to cut, look for projects where you’ve already got a solution that will continue to work for a while. It may not be the optimal choice, but it will get you through the budget crunch.


  1. Consider the long-term effects of your actions. In recent years, NASA has come under criticism for relaxing some of its safety standards in order to meet its launch goals. The specific complaint is that engineers and managers aren’t talking to all relevant parties when making decisions that could affect astronauts’ safety and well-being. NASA says that there will be time later in the process to address these risk issues.


Before you decide to jettison any program, make sure that you’ve touched base with other departments that could be impacted by your actions. You’re not going to win any friends in the organization long term if a project that you change or cut makes it harder for another department to work effectively.

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