“Houston, this is Station...”: Mission-critical communication for teams

This video is based on the Google's re:Work blog written by Dr. Lauren Landon and is not intended for commercial use.

Dr. Landon is a Research Scientist with KBRwyle in Houston, TX, specializing in teams as part of her work with NASA’s Human Research Program

Dr. Landon supports team skills training development and implementation for both flight controllers and astronauts at NASA Johnson Space Center.

CAPCOMs, or Capsule Communicators, are individuals on the ground who relay nearly all communication between the team in space and the teams in Houston’s Mission Control Center.

With multiple teams on the ground working simultaneously to ensure the crew’s safety and success in space, the role of the CAPCOM is crucial in an environment where small mistakes may have big consequences.

CAPCOMs are a great example of what social scientists call boundary spanners: individuals who build connections between teams and promote information sharing and collaboration while also working to maintain positive relationships.

In many organizations, boundary spanning is formalized into a managerial role that oversees multiple teams and may even reach across organizations, such as a “Director of Client Relations.” The role is also formalized at NASA — it just also happens to span the boundary between Earth and space.

In 2013, the ISS experienced a life-threatening ammonia leak in the coolant system that required astronauts to suit up for an emergency extravehicular activity (EVA). Had it not been for these two boundary spanners identifying critical information and coordinating information sharing between the right teams at the right time, planning and executing the emergency EVA in a record time of two days would not have been possible.

Most teams aren’t operating in microgravity, but regardless of the environment, having someone in a formal boundary spanning role helps to ensure that everyone across the team of teams is working toward the same goal, which can translate to faster progress.

Here are a few key characteristics of a good boundary spanner:

  • Communication skills: Pushing and pulling information from the appropriate experts at the right time, “packaging” calls so communications are clear and concise, and actively listening to ensure you understand information in the same way as the expert
  • Ability to prioritize goals, information, and recommendations: Identifying goals across multiple teams and understanding conflicting goals between teams that may need to be reprioritized
  • Adaptability and tolerance: Reconciling differences and compromises between teams, translating information into terms each team will understand to foster collaboration, and managing risks across the system to allow the best solution to come forward
  • Big picture thinking: Understanding and acknowledging how each team fits into the larger system and contributes to overall mission objectives, creating shared understanding across teams
  • Coordination and leadership skills: Influencing others to work towards a common goal, initiating structure for communications and work across teams (e.g., setting up a regular meeting with a clear agenda), and supporting all teams within the system
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