Solving NASA’s Innovation Challenge with Empathy

Cate Johnson
6 min readFeb 12, 2019

We think of NASA as one of the most innovative organizations in the world. They engineer rocketships, design flying cars, and allow humans to live in outer space. NASA fills us with a sense of wonder and possibility. Why, then, have NASA leaders said they are afraid they may not be able to reach their newly minted 2030 goals?


I delved into this, and much more when I spent a few months last fall collaborating with top leaders across NASA. I teamed up with rockstars from Thompson Reuters Labs and Fidelity’s Design Lab to co-create a series of interactive workshops intended to uncover barriers to innovation and support persistent innovators within NASA.

Before we had even begun, NASA shared that internal culture might be one of their main barriers to success. Spoiler alert: they’re not alone. Culture is made up of two components: people and their habits. It’s vital to pay attention not only to who makes up your workforce, but what the rituals, beliefs, and motivations contribute to how people act and how work gets done.

Did you know that the average age of people working at NASA in the Apollo missions of the 1970s was just 27 years old? And that today it’s grown to 56?

We may forget that NASA employees are civil servants and working within a system where career tracks incentivize you to stay within the government for decades. If you do the math, the average age of NASA employees tells you that many may have stayed in the system for 30+ years. That is an entire career! As a millennial, I can’t imagine staying with 1 company for 1 decade, let alone 3! This long tenure began to make more sense as I noticed that employees rarely said they worked “at NASA”, but “for NASA”. The dedication to service is strong, and, as many admitted, is one of the reasons for being attracted to and staying there despite much higher salaries and benefits in the commercial market.

Research from Harvard tells us that “diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth”. But age and years of experience is just one aspect of diverse teams. It’s important to highlight that diversity is not just about who is in the room, their demographics, and resume, but also how they solve problems. Putting together an incredibly diverse group of engineers is still a group of engineers who will solve problems as engineers do. What if you inserted a resident artist into your team as NASA has done at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California? Is this common at NASA and are innovators given permission to try new things and break out of historical, existing systems? Moreso, how are they rewarded or incentivized to do so…or are they reprimanded? These are just some of the questions circling my brain as I began my work…

Source: NASA’s Strategic Plan (2018)

During a series of empathy interviews as we began to create our workshops, NASA employees told us that because of the highly specialized and high-security nature of much of their work, they saw few people join NASA mid-career or transition in and out. Hiring regulations and practices also made it far from easy to quickly adapt a team or division when new technologies were invented or when priorities changed administration to administration. These factors combined contributed to a stagnant workforce, and it is no surprise that NASA is now struggling to attract and retain the talent necessary to fulfill their inspiring mission and vision (above).

We entered our workshops hosted at the National Academies of Sciences in DC prepared to lightly teach 35 leaders across NASA about design thinking and create a space where they could lean heavily into the process. We expected to highlight some nuggets of wisdom that might accelerate the necessary change within NASA and the space industry. We didn’t anticipate walking away having produced one of the most valuable workshops of the week for NASA’s Innovation Ecosystem conference.

How might we build empathy between NASA’s persistent innovators and NASA leadership to unlock creativity and opportunity for the organization as a whole?

Throughout the 3 workshops we facilitated, trends emerged from the conversations and resulting point of view (POV) statements were created.

SILOS — One NASA employee said, “I had to travel to a conference across the country to meet a person who works in the building next to me.” Others spoke about how they had to code their timecards and bill every hour of their day in a way that made it near impossible to dedicate energy to networking and creative pursuits outside of a few top projects.

LEGACY — Another engineer who spoke about transitioning from NASA to the booming private space industry said: “In the months leading up to and about a year after I left, I felt like a traitor.” Words like pride and legacy were repeated throughout almost every empathy interview I witnessed. The dedication to NASA’s mission of exploration and the feeling of shared accountability was strong. Another persistent innovator spoke about how he’d thought of leaving many times, but whose father had worked for NASA and he had grown up idolizing the organization. When asked, he said he felt both pride and accountability for furthering his family’s legacy with NASA.

RESILIENCE — Each of our persistent innovators told stories about being wildly successful despite overwhelming challenges. Some called themselves lucky, and many used words like “frustration” and “hack the system” to describe how they’ve survived, grown, or thrived. By creating a safe space to share their compelling and important individual stories, it was radical to observe NASA leaders begin to champion these persistent innovators’ record of breaking rules and leaned into their stories of success (and failure!) to learn more about the imperative to change their management styles and practices.

A design session with me almost always includes sharpies, colorful post-its, and masking tape. We used these materials to create, transparently display, and theme POV statements written in each workshop.

Leaders were asked to document issues and ideas that they could take back to their teams and start to prototype and test. The trends above produced POV statements like:

How might we examine barriers like workforce issues and the nature of workers’ portfolios that we might shift to stimulate innovation?

How might we reduce the time for project approval through group reviews?

How might we promote (Persistent Innovator X) and evangelize his successful brand of team-centric innovation across NASA?

Other themes and POV statements focused on skill development, leadership, management, and communication. Beyond these great ideas and the energy created to brainstorm possible prototypes, our main focus for these workshops was actually NOT on the solutions that might have been thought up here.

The focus of these workshops was to give leaders the space to stop and listen. Human-centered design’s magic comes from beginning your process with empathy, and so we used half of each 90-minute workshop for just that, and much less on defining problems and ideating solutions.

A fuzzy and poorly timed selfie of my team, including Mr. Einstein.

Moving forward from this experience, I am convinced yet again in the power of human connection and how active listening can propel individuals, teams, and organizations forward.

I am excited to read the published account of our work this spring by the Academy.

Stay tuned for that breaking news and more of my stories about playing with design and innovation in the field soon.

About the author: Cate feels most herself when surrounded by trees. She grew up in the woods of Maine riding horses and playing in the shade of hemlocks, birch, and maples. Cate is a global design ambassador and innovation champion on a mission to connect leaders to natural solutions by immersion in wilderness and inspiration from nature’s beauty.

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Cate Johnson

I believe in the healing power of nature and the happiness advantage for humans. I value sleep, co-creation, and love. (she/hers)