How a Group of NASA Renegades Transformed Mission Control

  • Loizos Heracleous, Christina Wawarta, Steven Gonzalez, and Sotirios Paroutis
  • April 05, 2019

Rebels create novel solutions, revitalize innovation, and can future-proof your business.

In business, we often label renegades and rebels as troublemakers — individuals who have to “get with the program” to align the organization both internally and externally. Our research at NASA, however, suggests we need renegades more than we think. Far from being obstacles to the work at hand, renegades can offer powerful ways to revitalize and shift organizations into the future.

Over time, organizations establish goal-achieving cultures and ways of operating, which often are not conducive to change. Habits, sunk costs, the strength of tradition, politics, and established worldviews all maintain the status quo. But as the competitive environment changes and unexpected challenges emerge, businesses need to adapt their approach.

The nudge organizations need to push in a different direction often comes from renegade groups — those that spot looming challenges and envision potential solutions outside the organization’s current ways. These groups are committed to elevating business capabilities and future-proofing them for novel challenges, often despite opposition from the status quo. It is therefore essential for organizations to create a climate that fosters rebel thinking and supports these contributors within their ranks.

Balancing Efficiency and Innovation

We conducted case-study research from 2013 through 2018 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to understand how organizations can become ambidextrous — which we define as being able to balance competing objectives like efficiency, innovation, and the development of current and future capabilities. Our research involved ethnographic visits, workshops, interviews of managers, engineers, and scientists, and historical document analysis.