First published in BW Businessworld here.
In 1967, during a launch rehearsal test, all three astronauts of Apollo-I tragically lost their lives in a command module fire. A vast majority of NASA’s 268,000 employees were working on getting a handful of astronauts to space and NASA had to get their massively disconnected internal departments and suppliers to focus on safety.
While NASA convened a review board to investigate the cause of the accident, Al Chop, the then director of public affairs realized that getting everyone, including outside Contractors, to focus on safety needed something more.
Al Chop had an idea for an award for safety featuring the then massively popular Snoopy as an astronaut. This award was to be given by astronauts in recognition of outstanding contributions made by NASA’s employees. Al got in touch with Charles Schulz, who agreed to let NASA use “Snoopy the Astronaut” at no cost, he even created the image for the award pin and posters to promote the award program. The first Silver Snoopy Awards were bestowed in 1968 to some of the crew who worked on the LTA-8 project, a test version of what would become the lunar module.
Employees of NASA or one of its contractors are eligible to apply for the Silver Snoopy awards and today, this award is a high honor within NASA. It is limited to just 1% of eligible recipients and an employee can receive only one Silver Snoopy in his (or her) lifetime.
While consistent and repeated internal communication is vital when organizations embark on initiatives like digital transformation or transforming their service experience, this story of NASA’s Silver Snoopy awards holds several lessons.
Recognizing behind-the-scenes heroes
Any transformation requires engagement across the board; while most organizations have reward and incentive programs for front-line staff, the ‘back-room boys’ stay in the shadows, largely ignored. A clearly defined and transparent reward and recognition program can help drive engagement across the organization and aid transformation efforts. But also remember what Peter Drucker said, ‘what gets measured gets managed’. As you design your program, establish the right metrics focused on outcomes.
Invest to raise the profile of your program, to develop internal communication collaterals and to celebrate winners and to promote them widely. Thinking about the introduction of an internal rewards program like a new product launch is helpful.
“Gift Wrapping” initiatives
The Apollo-I review board identified seven primary causes of the accident and in the aftermath, several new processes and standards were installed. The Silver Snoopy award symbolized NASA’s a renewed culture focused on safety. Similarly, when organizations embark on transformation initiatives, multiple projects and initiatives run concurrently; it’s important to tie these initiatives together, a reward program serves as a “gift-warp” – tying initiatives together. It also creates a visible symbol for change thus aiding communication across levels.
Driving cultural change requires symbols and visible champions
Most people in business tend to be highly analytical, we dive into transformation projects and create process maps and flow charts aimed at solving customer issues. However, driving transformation and change requires more than that. Change initiatives like digital transformation are 95% about cultural transformation and 5% about the actual technology and tools. NASA’s Silver Snoopy served as a symbol for the renewed focus on making expeditions safer. Creating symbols and infusing meaning over time can be invaluable. And recognizing employees exhibiting the desired behavior creates visible champions for the rest of the organization.