As a NASA astronaut, Charlie Camarda flew on STS-114, right after the Columbia accident. Having worked for NASA for 45 years as a Senior Advisor for Engineering Development, he pioneered an engineering pedagogical approach called EPIC that explores how to develop a mission as a collaborative training project.
His method involves getting the best results by bringing together a team that spans across varying levels of expertise, with people from different backgrounds to solve epic challenges.
I sat down with Charlie to talk about how to build diverse teams to encourage innovation.
Why diverse teams boost innovation
We need diversity, because innovation feeds off different perspectives.
We talk a lot about diversity. But in reality, we play a lot of lip service to it. “You give me one of these and one of those and put them all together.” But it’s about more than how you look, where you come from, your ethnicity, your religion, race or anything else for that matter.
It’s about how you think, how you create knowledge, how you learn and how you can look at a problem from a completely different point of view.
You have to train your teams to respect others when they speak. They have to listen. Understanding problems through someone else’s eyes will help you to see things that you wouldn’t have seen before.
Here are four key lessons from Charlie on how to create environments in which innovation can flourish:
1. Psychological safety
To build high-performing teams, you need a psychologically safe environment. Spaces which support innovation are those where people can voice their opinions, concerns, and ideas, towards anyone freely and candidly.
“I think going into a laboratory and constantly testing our ideas keeps us humble. Often, we think we know something, but when we go into a laboratory we’re amazed when we’re totally wrong.” – Charlie Camarda
It’s not about disproving someone else’s ideas, but rather learning as a team, which takes empathy. Communicating empathetically empowers everyone to respect and welcome diverse viewpoints and this helps to stimulate innovation.
2. Never forget where you come from
NASA was formed from NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with just 50 people from a research Center (the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Virginia) to begin a new Agency (NASA) with a new focus, space. Naturally over time, people started to lose their core ideology – their purpose – their research culture – and instead, NASA grew, became highly bureaucratic and was run like a large airplane company.
“Space was an incredibly risky business, which had to be understood and carefully considered. But in the bureaucratic structure which NASA grew into, it was easy to lose their core and culture.” – Charlie Camarda
Sometimes companies and teams lose their way, through outside or inside pressure. But for innovation, what matters is to regain it.
To innovate, you need to constantly look back at where you come from.
3. Strong leadership
A team that looks at a problem thinking they already know everything about it stops questioning themselves. You have to make sure that your teams don’t become arrogant, to think they know it all.
“The funny thing was, we flew right after the Columbia accident and, not too many people realized, we did not trust the people on the ground in mission control. The problem was the culture. People didn’t feel safe to raise their hands to point out a problem without fearing the negative impact on their career and livelihood. We saw that same arrogance in the flight control team that was in charge of our flight.” – Charlie Camarda
In a very risky environment like space, you have to rely on the skills of the person next to you.
This takes a very strong leadership.
Create flat organizations instead of hierarchies. The freedom to openly address higher levels of power and call out the boss is important.
“It’s all about gaining the knowledge and the understanding, no matter from where it comes.”
Instead of being in denial of a problem, encourage people to speak up and raise their concerns, to openly address challenges and find ways to solve them as a team.
4. Beginner’s mind
When you want your team to innovate, you have to constantly strive to solve problems. But as you become a professional, you start believing the way you’ve solved problems is the only way it can be done.
Beginner’s minds look at things just like a child and with a fresh new set of eyes. They’re curious, they have a thirst for knowledge and they’re very innovative. The idea that you might not know anything opens you up for creative insights and explorations.
Bringing high school kids together with professionals from the field opens you up for the greatest ideas. They challenge your beliefs.
“This one kid looked at polar bears and he said, ‘Did you know that polar bear hairs are hollow?’ They’re hollow, and that’s why they’re such good insulators. We have technology now that can make fibers that are that thin and hollow. You could take that and design a spacesuit that’s, maybe, more thermally effective.”
These insights don’t necessarily have to be from kids; innovation can come by gathering with professionals from very different fields – like NASA connecting with gamers or apparel designers.
Connecting with them is not necessarily about coming up with an idea that’s going to work, but to explore many ideas, learn, try, fail and discover.
Those are the minds you want in your teams – the ones that get totally motivated when someone says, “This is impossible”. They try without fear.