Laura Gallaher on Changing the Culture at NASA

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. The investigation board looking into the matter found fault in NASA’s organizational culture, especially how it handled decision-making and risk assessment. That’s where today’s guest, Dr. Laura Gallaher, enters the story.

Special thanks to Ryan Thibodeau, Kris Duvy, Ryan Isaac, Vivian Woo, Richard Mendelson, Veronika Jakl, and Craig Dawson for their questions.

Visit Gallaher Edge to learn more about Laura’s consulting services.


This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  00:02

Welcome to the Department 12 Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina. On February 1 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. An investigation board found that during takeoff, a piece of foam insulation about the size of a briefcase broke off from a fuel tank and struck the shuttles left wing, causing a small breach. When Columbia returned from its mission, that breach allowed atmospheric gases to penetrate the wings heat shield and destroy it. Now, when I first read this story, I assumed that the foam breakage issue was a one off kind of a freak accident. But I was wrong.  Foam shedding was a known issue at NASA even had a name phone jetting hit occurred during every previous shuttle launch. So how did something like that lead to such a disaster at the investigation board was highly critical of NASA’s risk assessment and decision making processes. So the immediate cause of the disaster, the proximate cause, of course, was the phone breakage. But the root cause according to the investigated board, or at least a contributory cause, was the culture at NASA. And that’s where today’s guest, Dr. Laura gallaher enters our story. How are you today, Laura?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  01:17

I’m doing great. Thank you so much.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  01:19

So set the stage for us, if you don’t mind, where are you living? And what are you doing when you first hear about this opportunity at NASA? Or this need?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  01:29

I was two years into my Ph. D. program in IO psychology, actually. So I had just gotten the master’s degree and route. And one of my roommates said that NASA was looking to hire IO psychologists. And I remember in the moment literally going, wait like the NASA, like, I was trying to figure out, is there another company that has a similar name? And he said, Yeah, the NASA and and I found out that they were looking to build a team to do organization development inside NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, as a result of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. Wow.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  02:08

So what are you thinking at this point?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  02:12

It gave me a tremendous amount of overwhelm at first. I mean, I definitely felt like what we do as IO psychologists, it matters. I’ve always thought that it mattered. But I would lean on things like, we spend so much of our time at work. And so let’s make work an awesome place. You know, let’s help these companies actually do beautiful things to change the world. But to find out that it had this much weight and significance, right, that they were looking for IO psychologists to come in and help create, maintain and enhance a culture to save lives. was very humbling.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  02:50

Yeah, I bet. And is that the way the job was presented to you? So I’m assuming you’re going through some kind of interview process. And you know that it’s an organizational development roll. But that’s, you know, a little vague, you know, it’s in response to Columbia. But again, kind of what does that mean, at this point? What is the job being offered to you? What is it the, that NASA wants you to do?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  03:13

Well, I mean, they called the job and organization development specialist. And the person that I feel really brought me on to the team, his name is Dr. Philip Meade. He’s actually my business partner today. So you know, we’ve continued to work together over the last 15 years. And, you know, I, if you don’t mind, I’ll kind of jump ahead and maybe not to the interview process itself. But like, day, one day one on the job, he literally puts down on my desk, this book, and it’s the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. And he wanted me to read it. And you want me to read the whole thing. And there were a few chapters in there that specifically talked about leadership and culture and decision making. And so those were obviously where I focused more of my time and energy. But it was very, very clear to me that this was a role and an entire department at the Kennedy Space Center that was created because of this tragedy. And it was really clear, like they didn’t want anyone to lose sight of why we were doing this and how important it was.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  04:10

Absolutely. So you mentioned earlier, you know that this kind of felt like, wow, like this is very real. All of a sudden, when you study IO psychology, it can feel a little bit I don’t know, removed or abstract. But this is, hey, here’s a real organization. Everyone knows its name. There’s a real tragedy that occurred here. And they’re looking for help to fix some kind of problem in the organization or the culture to prevent anything like that happening again. So the responsibility is really high. The stakes are really high. And I’m curious when you come into a situation like this, are you using or thinking about those formal models or theories of change that we all learn in school and graduate school or is it messier than that?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  04:56

I absolutely was, you know, because I was right in the middle of school and I would, I still had classes that I was taking. And so I was working full time, but but still doing all of my coursework. And so I would continuously learn things in the program that I would then immediately turn around and want to bring into the the customers at NASA, Kennedy Space Center that I was serving. So I would definitely want to bring in a lot of these, you know, formal theories and concepts. And it’s definitely messy. You know, one of the things that I talked about when I was working there is, gosh, you know, I read these academic articles that say things like, Well, we know that leaders who have strong emotional regulation skills are perceived as more effective than those with lower emotional regulation skills. And I’m like, Okay, great. So how do I, how do I do that? Right, like, how do we develop that? And so I supplemented my, my formal PhD training, with quite a bit of other areas of expertise, you know, lots of other different programs and trainings and workshops and concepts. And and sometimes I would use the more popularized version of an academic theory like Carolyn duacs, incremental, an entity theories, right. Nobody wants to hear me talk about that they’re gonna like tune out. In fact, I kind of had to downplay sometimes my academic background. So it’s not to be seen as out of touch. But if I talk about it as Oh, growth mindset, and Carolyn Dweck has this great book called mindset, you know, let’s check this out. Let’s look at let’s talk about, you know, Michael Jordan, and mindset. You know, that was a really great way to connect people. So I felt grateful for some of the academics out there who’ve gone through the trouble to make their academic work really accessible.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  06:44

Yeah, it’s funny. I love having my assumptions challenge. So one of my assumptions would be that, if anywhere is going to be open to, you know, the academic background, regardless of the field, that it would be NASA, you know, this place that we look up is kind of like, the, you know, the very zenith of technical expertise. And, you know, I guess maybe a lot of us our opinion, or our impressions of NASA are still based around footage from the Apollo program of, you know, engineers with short sleeves and ties, right in the back and slide rule, and that kind of thing, but you’re saying that within NASA, just like within many organizations, you kind of have to soften the message, make it a little more accessible. You know, I read a little bit of the investigation report myself, and it was very interesting. And also very, I guess, I think about it like high level, one of the questions that popped into my head, ask you after reading some of that was, okay, there’s all these organizational dynamics, we could sit around, we could theorize about it all day, but I wondered about grief. So, to those of us, you know, watching TV that day, those were seven astronauts, about which we, you know, about whom we knew very little other than these little BIOS that you get on TV, but presumably, at least to some people at NASA, these are, these were their co workers. In some cases, these were their friends. And I just wondered how how fresh or visible was that grief when you started working.

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  08:22

So I started working there in 2006. And so some time had passed between the tragedy and when I was hired. So So Dr. Philip made in his PhD is actually an industrial engineering. So it’s really fun to have, you know, this engineer who focuses on culture paired with a psychologist who focuses on culture, like we have a pretty unique way of doing things. And he definitely had much greater insight into that experience. By the time I was hired, NASA had already returned to flight. And so there was a much greater level of joyfulness and celebration, you know, in kennedy space on our is a launch site. That’s what we did. I mean, that’s what they still do, right? They launch things. And so to be back launching, which had only been for, gosh, I guess, a few months at that point, if things were actually at a pretty happy place, I would say people were feeling more confident than ever before. And I think they’ve largely processed through their grief.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  09:26

Okay, thanks for sort of helping set that context. So in 2006, you know, flights are back on, there’s some sense of joy, of, Hey, you know, we’re doing you know, what we’re here to do again, but there’s still sort of, I guess, the underlying issues that you were brought in to help address so could you just help help us understand, you know, how did you conceptualize this? How did you think about what it is that, you know, that NASA was facing and what you could do to help?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  09:57

Well, so part of how the department was formed, excuse me, the department was formed because the center director at the time had the insight to say this is not one and done. Right. So Philip mead led the initial culture change initiative there at Kennedy Space Center. And once they’d gotten through a pretty good chunk of that, he said, okay, but But hold on a second. I mean, first of all, this is not the first tragedy that we’ve experienced at NASA with the shuttle program, we got to make sure that we’re staying vigilant, we have to pay attention to this all the time, we have to make sure this is part of our leadership development, we have to make sure that we’re constantly creating and maintaining a culture of safety, and one where we create psychological safety and all these kinds of things. And so that’s when Philip stepped up and said, That’s organization development. That’s what you’re describing. And I can start that for you. And so when I came on board, what we were working on is, I mean, a couple things. One is how can we take this idea of culture, which is pretty nebulous, and can feel very abstract to people, and make it something that they can understand. culture itself is not specifically tangible. And, you know, organizations are these complex adaptive systems. And they’re filled with human beings who are also within themselves, these complex adaptive people. So how do we, how do we actually work through this? How do we create any kind of simplicity, so people understand what we’re doing, they get why it’s important, and we can figure out really this whole puzzle. So you know, our first iteration of really trying to create clarity was about thinking of culture from the inside out. So it always starts with the self, always, always, I mean, anytime you’re talking about what’s going on in an organization’s culture, you’re talking about human behavior. And so human behavior has its origins in how each person feels about themselves. And so some of what we would do was go, you know, pretty deep with people to help them grow their self awareness, help them understand the subtle ways that their own defense mechanisms were creeping out and conversations and unintentionally shutting things down. Right, that was one of the key problems that was highlighted in the report. And then at the same time, we talked about culture from the inside out, you know, we also have to look at the organizational level. So when we talk about things like the design of the organization, you know, what is the actual structure? What are the reporting relationships, one of the key things that they changed was, they pulled safety and engineering out from underneath the program. So the people who had the most to say about the safety of the crew, and the most to say about the technical engineering of what was going on during the mission, they were reporting up to the same person, ultimately, who was also responsible for managing schedule and budget. And in hindsight, they could see that’s a really flawed organization design, I mean, that that organization was designed to get the exact results that it got. And so they wanted to create a situation where each of those functions had a seat at the table, so they could make better decisions. And they could be focused more on what was individually important. Without having, you know, schedule and budget take precedence, which was a pattern both when in Colombia as well as challenger. So we were looking at it through the lens of going deep for each human to help them understand how they can be more effective through the lens of how do we design the actual organization and create alignment through the systems and structures and processes. And then of course, the middle layer is the team. So how do we create teams that are highly collaborative and understand what it takes to create psychological safety, and really look at collaboration as a set of skills? I think that’s one of the biggest things that we were focused on.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  13:42

That’s fantastic. And I think the example you gave of having the safety folks reporting up through the schedule, and budget leadership is maybe one of the clearest, most concrete examples of organizational design and organizational development. And here’s how not having the organization structured in the right way can lead to problems. And here’s how you go about fixing it. Sometimes, in the OD world, those conversations get so abstract and vague that it’s hard to even figure out what anybody’s talking about. Yeah, this example that you just shared is, is right on point, you can see almost on first hearing it at least as an outsider. Yeah, this is trouble brewing. But not so easy to see, maybe when you’re on the inside. I’m curious, too. So NASA, in addition to having, I think a general reputation in the world for sort of technical excellence, and achieving these sort of milestone achievements for all of humanity, also has, I think, a pretty popular perception among the general public as a good place to work. So among those who are in the know about working for federal agencies, NASA is kind of held up as Yeah, this is the is definitely one of the better places to work. Their scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are pretty high across the board usually. So what I’m wondering is, you know, in addition to the problem that you were there to help diagnose and solve, what did you see was going right at NASA? What strengths did they have that you kind of picked up on, as you walk through that door,

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  15:23

there were so many strengths. And this was actually part of what made the whole thing so challenging. And you’re absolutely right, then the A were rated, actually as the number one place to work in the federal government the year before this happened. So the most recent federal employment Viewpoint Survey, whatever they’re calling it, they’ve changed the name a few times over the years, they were number one. So people loved to work there. They were incredibly dedicated, you know, one of the one of the problems that they have to work to solve is getting people to take their vacation time. Like the civil servants there dedicate 10s of 1000s of hours of their own annual leave back to the government every year, because they’re so dedicated, they want to work, and it’s hard to get some people to take their time off. So you really do have this organization that’s filled with very smart, very skilled, very passionate, very caring people. And that’s part of what made it even more challenging, like, it would have been easier if it was just terribly flawed. You know, and it was a bad place to work. And people were complaining about it, and they, you know, didn’t have any commitment to the organization’s mission. And that wasn’t the case. And so it highlighted how important it is to really take a look at the contributing factors, you know, culture is an emergent property. So we have to be able to see through the interaction of everything that’s going on, what are some of the unintended consequences. So there’s a couple of things that I’ll highlight. So one example is it’s really about decision making when it comes to risk. So there was a pretty constant fear that the shuttle program might be canceled. And for a lot of people, they had spent their whole career at NASA working in the shuttle program, it was perhaps running when they got there, or maybe they were there to start it off. It had been going for a couple decades strong. The idea of losing the shuttle program was devastating. For a lot of these people, it was like their baby. And so we use this metaphor, this example. Right? So Ben, if I took you to the top of the Empire State Building, and there’s a big beam that’s hanging out, say 50 feet over the edge, and there’s $100 bill taped at the edge of it. If I asked you to go to the end of the beam to get that $100 bill, would you do it?

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  17:42

Oh, no.


Yeah, I wouldn’t either.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  17:46

I wouldn’t. Among other things, I’m like, the worst chicken shit in the world when it comes to heights. But I think even if I weren’t 100 buckers not gonna do it.

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  17:57

Probably not so worth it. Right. But now imagine that it’s, you know, like your child or a niece or nephew or a human being that depends on you that you genuinely care about, are you going to go out and get them?

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  18:08


Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  18:09

absolutely. Right.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  18:10

I hope so. You know, yeah, I don’t really know what you’re gonna do in that situation. But I like to think that that is the gun to the head that I would need to get over that, that fear of heights. And yeah, I would go out after my kids or my nieces. Right?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  18:22

Yeah, right. And so so what we can see there is, when you have a fear of losing your baby, right, even metaphorically, you are going to make riskier choices, you’re gonna make riskier decisions to save the baby. And one of the things that people heard all the time and NASA’s culture was save the program, save the program. And really what that meant was, it was about managing the perceptions of the program. So if they were getting pressure from the government, or from the press, or from whoever about things like schedule, and budget, then that became the predominant focus. And it became Okay, we have to save the program. And so it was almost a situation where how much people cared, started to work against them, because they started to make riskier choices, riskier decisions. And obviously, in this case, it led them there’s, there’s more variables here, but it lead to tragedy, right. And so it’s the opposite of what we want. And so that was one of the things that Philip worked to change right away is, let’s get rid of that vernacular that is, unfortunately, actually very toxic. And let’s make sure that we all feel very clear that, hey, if the program gets canceled, it gets canceled, but we want to make sure that we are doing the best we can with making decisions about risk. So that’s one of the ways that was really challenging that NASA had this really great culture and very caring mission driven people, but was working against them.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  19:43

All right, well, thank you for that. That was great. And I think I’m going to steal the $100 versus baby out on a beam. risky example because it was a great way to illustrate that. I’m, I’m in this unusual situation. have kind of thinking into the future and realizing that you know, space travel is likely to become more important to humanity. As time goes on, and probably 100 or 200 years from now, there will be people listening to this episode trying to figure out how we manage space travel organizations early on in human history. Because you know, even though it feels like a long time, from, you know, the 60s to the early 2000s, when the Columbia or when the Columbia disaster happened, we’re still fairly early on in the history of space travel. And so for those people listening to that, trying to figure out, you know, maybe other IO psychologists like they want to work in space agencies, they want to support this special mission of space travel. So one of my questions is, you know, what’s different, if anything, about the organizations that support space travel, compared to say, a typical Corporation?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  20:56

I think it has to do with beliefs about failure. So in most organizations, well, this, actually, let me let me walk that back. I’m not sure if that’s true. In a lot of organizations, especially ones who are really focused on being innovative, they are encouraged to fail, they they understand, and they recognize that failure is a part of learning and that if you’re not failing, then you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. And I walked it back, because I realized that’s not true in a lot of organizations, they say they want to be innovative, but then they, you know, can come down on people really hard when they actually, you know, step forward and try something and fail. And so part of what’s different about the space industry is that, especially when you’re talking about manned vehicles, one of the mantras is failure is not an option. And so it creates a very constrained environment to try to learn and push and innovate. And, you know, we talked about how safety was a value at NASA, and it is, but let’s be real, like, if safety was genuinely the top priority, we just wouldn’t send human beings up into space. It’s extremely dangerous. It just is, you know, people got used to the whole space travel thing. I mean, that was part of part of the challenge received the program, it just people just became used to it like, Oh, another shuttle launch. Great. You know, it wasn’t exciting anymore, even with challenger, which happened in 1986. And that’s, that’s the accident that most people actually think of, and that most people remember when they think about NASA tragedies, because everybody was watching. You know, in the 80s, it was a different environment. And NASA was feeling pressure to keep the Space Shuttle Program interesting. And so they did this whole event around having a civilian go up in space, and a teacher who was going to teach lessons from outerspace and so had more attention than ever and more pressure than ever, you know, goofy things like they couldn’t get a door closed, they couldn’t get a wrench thing removed. And so the whole launch was scrubbed this one time, because something that seems so Goofy, they literally just like this little mechanical thing. And we can’t figure this out. And you know, those types of things built up all this pressure. And so space industry is it’s obviously extremely dangerous. And with that, danger, we want people to really, really manage and prepare and plan against failure, but people lose sight of that. They lose sight of how dangerous it is, because there’s actually so much success behind all the shuttle missions. It was one of the things that worked against them in Colombia. They’ve been doing so well, they’d gone so many years without any accidents. And in fact, you mentioned how the foam shedding had happened. Pretty much every single launch before that, that was actually part of the problem. They call that normalization of deviation. Right? So it’s like, oh, yeah, that’s happened before. It’s not an issue during flight. It’s something that we’ll pay attention to in our process in the orbiter and turning it around for the next launch. So the fact that it had happened so many times, instead of it being a, how did they not realize this? How are they not on top of it, it actually became Oh, yeah, that’s fine. That always happens.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  24:02

So thank you. I know that because this was a job that you had, you know, while you were in graduate school fairly early in your career, I’m guessing it had a pretty big influence on you professionally, but I wonder if you’d be willing to say a little about how this experience changed you personally?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  24:24

Well, this may be a different answer than what you are maybe anticipating or looking for. But when I mentioned before, the whole piece about emotional regulation skills, right, and sort of understanding that from an academic perspective, and not necessarily fully understanding yet how to help leaders develop those skills. That is what I felt like I was doing a lot of the time is I was helping these leaders better understand how to create psychological safety within their teams. So that dissenting opinions could be raised and people felt comfortable to have healthy conflict to make better decisions. And one of the big And most profound learning experiences for me happened a couple years in, when I went through a program called the human element. And I, I learned through that program that I was actually exhibiting a lot of those same behaviors that I was coaching leaders to not do. So I had these really powerful relationships with my internal customers that I was playing coach and consultant for, but inside my own team, I was lacking some of my own self awareness. And so I think it was it has been, and continues to be critically important for me, as an IO psychologist to really pay attention to my own development as a human. And it’s something that I would highly, highly recommend to all of your listeners that they’re also really paying attention to their own personal human development and how they show up everywhere they go.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  25:52

Yeah, such a great point, we get so used to looking at some of these behaviors and, and attitudes and things from an external point of view, you can kind of lose track of it in yourself, and you do, I think, lose credibility as a coach or an od practitioner, whatever it is that you do when you are maybe unknowingly displaying some of the very same behaviors, you’re asking the people that you serve, to address. Yeah, that’s a great answer. So thank you for that. Switching gears a little bit to your professional life, what is it that you do now? And you know, how, how do you think that your experience early on at NASA has shaped that?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  26:30

Well, most broadly, I apply the science of human behavior to organizations, right. And so specifically, within that what we talk about is aligning culture from the inside out. So we really do work with executive teams to help them understand what do they want their culture to be? How can they create a culture that helps them actually execute their competitive strategy? And then how do they develop those skills as human beings to get there? So you know, that whole inside out idea, it’s, it’s the same, the same work that I was doing, when I was internal at NASA, we were paying attention to? How do we design the organization to really support culture and strategy? How do we develop the human skills, especially amongst the leadership team, so they understand how to create psychological safety, you know, build that level of self awareness. And so we really work at you know, I call it three levels, right? organization, team, and self all three levels of an organization to take the most comprehensive view of culture. And we work with all kinds of industries, really, I did lean towards tech. Because coming out of my experience with NASA, I really enjoyed that I really enjoyed working with people in the technology and engineering fields. But it’s, you know, this, it’s organizations and its people, and the same ideas apply across, regardless of the industry.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  27:49

Well, Laura, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to share this experience with us. I realized fairly early on, when we started talking about doing this interview that there was just no way I was going to be able to tell the whole story of your time at NASA. And maybe, maybe that would be jumping the gun anyway, because it sounds like it would make a great book, or maybe it’s part of your keynote work as well.


And we’re writing a book actually,

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  28:14

yeah, yeah, I’ll read it. I think a lot of people will.


I’ll send you a copy.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  28:19

Thank you. And I will also include links to to your business. It’s Gallaher Edge, correct?

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  28:25

That’s correct.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  28:27

So I’ll include links to that in the show notes. And I encourage everyone listening to please do check out. The webpage for the business is very impressive. Laura herself just seems like a very impressive person across the board. So connecting with her on on LinkedIn and following her career is probably a great idea. And I think if you are a student listening to this and considering a future in od work, that this is a great episode to share, maybe with your classmates as well. Insofar as while we got into in the short time, we had together some very specific examples of things like organizational alignment, things like that. Or again, thank you so much for sharing this fascinating story. And I hope I get to talk to you again soon.

Laura Gallaher, Ph.D.  29:08

Thanks so much, Ben.