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Harnessing the Power of Real Team Building

Harnessing the power of real team building 12:00 AM CDT on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 Cheryl Hall


The interview pitch was irresistible: Meet the guy who turned the biggest screw-up in the history of science into a team-building system that’s second to none. Charlie Pellerin did not disappoint.

The 65-year-old former director of astrophysics for NASA led the team that built the hobbled Hubble Space Telescope and then redeemed himself by leading the mission to fix it.

“I became curious about something we never talked about at NASA: how a leadership failure could have trumped the hard work of literally thousands of the best technical minds in the world,” Pellerin said during a recent visit to Dallas.

It set him on a new course of research.

Now the founder of 4-D Systems Inc. in Boulder, Colo., teaches NASA employees and tech types around the globe how to transform underperforming groups into highly productive collaborative teams.

He was here last week to spread the gospel with folks at Texas Instruments Inc. and Raytheon Co. and to give a speech to a local technology group.

Pellerin has found that the softer skills of playing nice in the laboratory are alien to many of the brightest minds in our universe. So he developed a system called 4-D – for what he feels are the four most important dimensions of teamwork.

He presents touchy-feely HR concepts by using scientific analogies and performance graphs so that high-tech minds can grasp them. He has measurement tools so that team members can see results.

He offers a free online 15-minute diagnostic test at to identify eight troublesome behaviors – such as failure to show appreciation. Follow his Pavlovian modification processes, and he says a lagging group can increase performance 5 percent every six months.

“Appreciation has to be shown habitually, authentically, proportionately, specifically and promptly,” he says. “Everyone on the team learns the rationale of why this is important. They learn what good looks like.”

Rave reviews

Frankly, his promises sound too easy to be true. But Pellerin has impressive endorsers, including the former head of NASA and the chief architect of the Global Positioning System.

Current space agency officials are prohibited from giving commercial endorsements, but in the last eight years, 700 NASA project management and engineering teams have taken advantage of the agency’s training contract with Pellerin.

“Charlie’s teachings are universal,” says Martin Harwit, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “People are not the product of cookie cutters. Charlie teaches us not only to recognize and respect inherent differences but to build on them to form stronger teams able to tackle the most demanding problems.”

You can read Pellerin’s $40 book, How NASA Builds Teams, or hire one of his NASA-certified coaches to fine-tune your approach. An initial assessment and several coaching sessions cost about $2,000.

But the laid-back Pellerin swears this isn’t about bringing in $5 million in annual revenue but rather about helping America prepare for societal changes that threaten our fundamental lifestyles if we don’t become more productive.

“Consider what it would be like for Dallas-Fort Worth if you could increase productivity of all its project teams by 10 percent per year with negligible effort,” Pellerin says. “How important would that be in dealing with the coming changes in our society?”

You might think Pellerin, as the son of an Air Force pilot, became an astrophysicist because he liked spaceships. But his career choice was an act of patriotism. Pellerin wanted to use his math and science acumen to thwart Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s Cold War threat of “We will bury you!”

“I’m serious when I say I’m quite the ordinary person,” Pellerin says. “But I find ways to connect to purpose. I got that from being at NASA during Apollo. All of us there had a mindset that we never lost: ‘We’re going to the moon. Get out of the way.’ ”

Pellerin had visions of the president pinning a medal on him in the White House Rose Garden after the Hubble Space Telescope was finished.

His NASA team had achieved the near impossible with an instrument that could focus on a target the size of a quarter from 200 miles away and maintain contact regardless of movement.

When Hubble launched in 1990, Pellerin wasn’t particularly worried about the slightly fuzzy images initially being transmitted, so he went off on vacation to Japan. He thought his boss was playing a stupid joke when he told Pellerin that a flawed mirror – the easiest piece of this monumentally intricate puzzle – had rendered the $1.7 billion telescope useless.

The fiasco was officially blamed on failed leadership, and Pellerin was leader of the team.

NASA bosses ordered him to keep clear of the repair mission, but he was intent on making things right. So he redeployed (i.e., confiscated) $60 million of his division’s $750 million budget to start an unauthorized mission.

“What I did at a certain level was illegal,” he says. “This was no minor infraction.”

All was forgiven as his repair strategy took hold. And when Hubble was ultimately fixed in 1993, Pellerin finally got his medal – NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal.

“It’s interesting how you can break something and then get rewarded for fixing it,” says Pellerin, who had left NASA a couple of months before to teach leadership at the University of Colorado’s business school in Boulder.

In early 2003, Pellerin assembled a team of 15 former NASA project managers to implement a major contract with the space agency. They were gathered at Pellerin’s home in Boulder discussing strategy on the morning that space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on live television.

“After a while, I turned off the TV and said, ‘We alone may be the most potent people to prevent such accidents in the future. Let’s get to work.’ ”

John Wiley & Sons Inc. published his book on NASA team building in July 2009 and has translated it into five foreign languages.

It’s red hot in China.

Measuring change

Dallas executive coach Susan Shapiro became a 4-D disciple and certified NASA coach last year. “I’ve used 4-D in non-NASA areas, including a bank in town. By testing the team, they become aware of the problems. Then they reinforce each other to change. HR loves this because you can measure the difference.”

Bill Townsend deployed Pellerin’s system as deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He also implemented it at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, where the process helped boost profit in his division 40 percent.

“In both cases, there were some serious cultural differences amongst the involved organizations,” Townsend says. “But Charlie came in and worked his magic, and things improved dramatically.”

“You would think that all it takes to build successful project teams is to get a bunch of sharp, well-motivated, self-starting, creative people together,” Townsend says.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that way. You need people who can work together without feeling threatened by equally creative people, people who can work together with people who think differently than themselves, and people who can work together without feeling the need to withhold information to maintain a position of power within the team.”

That’s the power of Pellerin’s system, Townsend says.

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