NASA and Open Innovation

From the Case Study Houston We Have A Problem

This case explores implementing the “open innovation” concept to Space Life Sciences Directorate (SLSD). In this case, Jeff Davis, director of Space Life sciences Directorate (SLSD) at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has been working to implement some organizational changes. According to Davis, awareness is critical for creativity at the workplace. Open innovation at the workplace concerns new ways of establishing different system approaches in a decided form. Davis is working with Elizabeth Richard, who works with Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering Group as a senior strategist, to implement Open Innovation to SLSD. The idea is that for so many years, the effort to increase awareness among engineers and scientists, and promote creativity was consumed (Tushman, Lifshitz-Assaf, & Herman, 2014). Hence Davis and his team are working to bring open innovation environment to the organization.

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My interest in the concept of open innovation and its application to NASA is driven by my interest in innovation in the workplace and how open innovation changes the dynamics in which the corporate world looks at creativity and innovation. According to my studies, innovation is critical in the workplace, giving companies a competitive edge providing novel areas, penetrating markets, and connecting to markets, leading to bigger opportunities for a company. Traditionally, most companies have relied on closed innovation, where work is carried out in a self-contained innovation environment (Crescenzi & Gagliardi, 2018), different from open innovation. Open innovation is a concept applied to encourage an information age approach in the direction of innovation, contrary to the silo and secrecy mindset of traditional organizational research labs. Companies generate ideas from internal and external sources with an open innovation mindset. This implies sharing information and knowledge concerning problems and reaching for people outside the organization for suggestions and solutions (West, Salter, Vanhaverbeke, & Chesbrough, 2014). Open innovation provides a new imperative for companies to create and profit from technology through collaboration.

Davis and Elizabeth’s idea about NASA and Open Innovation was to create a collaborative workplace philosophy where members of SLSD could use open innovation as a tool to continue to work together on their technology and research for the effectiveness of performance and human health in space. The idea was as a strategic plan to confine SLSD within the new budget model and maintain innovation levels despite the 2005 budget cut across NASA divisions. However, the idea was vehemently opposed by leaders across the organization because it threatened their position at NASA (Tushman, Lifshitz-Assaf, & Herman, 2014). Some managers perceived the idea of open innovation as a barrier to innovation, which others bought the notion of a new imperative to innovation as suggested by Davis and Elisabeth.


Why did the idea of Open Innovation for NASA face resistance?

            As mentioned earlier, scientists and engineers working for NASA resisted the notion of open systems. Most of them felt that it threatened their pride and position in the organization. Some of Davis and Elizabeth’s colleagues rejected the idea as unrelated to their work. They termed the idea as ill-suited to their particular specialized research. Some workers were skeptical that non-experts and outsiders could provide a science-based solution to big science problems. The majority of the workers expressed an unwillingness to integrate the concept into their day-to-day work (Tushman, Lifshitz-Assaf, & Herman, 2014). But why did this happen? Implementing open innovation into the company is likely to face cultural resistance because of its design. The open innovation model stresses the significance of adopting an extensive range of knowledge and information sources for the company’s innovation and creativity activities, including academics, companies from unrelated industries, rival firms, and customers, while at the same time using creative approaches to exploit the organization’s intellectual property (IP). Open innovation operates on the principle that companies can attain a greater return on their intellectual property and innovative activities by lessening control over both (Chesbrough, 2017). Hence, organizations must strike a balance between internal and external development. 

The idea may shake the organization’s internal culture and cause resistance from employees who feels that their innovations are superior to any external competing ideas. Rejecting competing ideas from external parties is not new in the corporate world. Flush from famous and successful user interfaces innovations in the 1980s, Apple Computer Company engineers overruled external ideas in several areas, including handheld computers. They adopted the slogan “not invented here” to describe the rejections (West & Gallagher, 2006). As such, open innovation is resisted primarily not because of technical issues, but due cultural dynamics. In such cases, a company may not succeed by directly adopting open innovation as a new model across the organization. The best way is to adopt traditional collaborative research and development led by internal experts while slowly integrating open innovation platforms managed by crowds of non-domain specialists. According to Winsor, Paik, Tushman, and Lakhani (2019), it is vital to attend to the firm’s internal culture, listen more, and request a one-to-one conversation with employees protesting the innovation instead of introducing the idea through a dramatic declaration and public relation blitz. It is essential to meet with interested stakeholders to produce more client/user proof points.

Was the idea effective in the end?

Open innovation is effective when positioned as a tool that allows employees to bring on board the latest technologies, which they can apply to advance their original ideas and projects (Winsor, Paik, Tushman, & Lakhani 2019). The implementation of open innovation systems for NASA was successful despite initial resistance. Some engineers and scientists at NASA welcomed the open innovation technique as an opportunity to advance their roles and capabilities. As some employees described it, the transition from close innovation to open system was a shift from the idea that “the lab is my world” to “the world is my lab.” Some engineers proposed the need to forget about the “how” of their professional work and refocus on the bigger “why.” This called for a change in professional identity to “solution seekers” contrary to the conventional “problem solvers” (Tushman, Lifshitz-Assaf, & Herman, 2014). The acceptance of open innovation came after several lectures were conducted on the employees to understand the benefits of open innovation systems. The primary goal of open innovation collaboration is redesigning the organizational mindset and culture. Davis and Elizabeth conducted a workshop to promote a collaboration process and get the resisting employees to change their minds. In the end, most of them were stimulated to accept the idea.

Why is open innovation and idea of strategic significance to NASA?

            Many organizations and agencies globally are beginning to harness the expertise, perspectives, and enthusiasm of open innovation or “the crowd” outside the company’s walls to accelerate projects, reduce costs, and enhance creativity and engagement (Balcom, 2015). NASA has also embraced the concept of open innovation, expanding its community to enhance its capability for innovation and discoveries. NASA has been known for its space exploration, innovations, and scientific discoveries for decades and is synonymous with its first-ever spaceflight to the moon on July 20th, 1969 (Cortright, 2019).  However, the organization has been experiencing changes and transitions since then. Davis took over the leadership of SLSD in 2002 when some of these changes were being affected, including the substantial budget cuts. During the takeover, the SLSD experienced huge budget cuts, which impacted its ability for innovation. As the director, Davis had to find a solution on how SLSD can remain innovative. The idea of open innovation was arrived at, opening doors for others; hence more minds taking part in the project. The best idea was to collaborate with stakeholders to enhance innovation and not all the projects alone (Tushman, Lifshitz-Assaf, & Herman, 2014), which worked for the organization.

Overall, the case shows that implanting corporate innovation is not easy. Leaders face resistance before stakeholders embrace the idea. At NASA, scientists and engineers first resisted the idea of open innovation. Most of them felt that it threatened their position in the organization and was not aligned with their work. Implementing an idea such as open innovation requires that the leadership pay attention to the firm’s internal culture. However, besides the protest, Davis and the team succeeded in convincing other employees to accept the idea after several workshop lectures. Open innovation is of strategic importance to NASA’s effort to expand its community to enhance its capability for innovation and discoveries.


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Cortright, E. M. (2019). Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: The NASA History 50th Anniversary Edition. Courier Dover Publications.