Betting on Innovation and Overcoming Resistance to Change


Former Virgin Galactic CEO and NASA Chief of Staff George Whitesides knows what it means to take risks and drive change in a complex industry.

George Whitesides and Sam Glick

9 min read

“Any revolutionary idea seems crazy before it's been proven,” George Whitesides, former Virgin Galactic CEO and NASA Chief of Staff in the Obama administration, said during a session at the 2021 Oliver Wyman Health Innovation Summit.

During a fireside chat, Whitesides and Oliver Wyman’s Sam Glick talked about the many parallels that exist between the space and healthcare industries — both are deeply rooted in government programs, incumbent players are being forced to change as new entrants disrupt the marketplace, and leaders need to be willing to learn from their failures as much as from their successes.

Below are five takeaways from Whitesides remarks. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Public-Private Partnerships Can Drive Change

Space is actually a really interesting case study for innovation and the interplay between the public sector and the private sector. Because what's been happening in space is something that hasn't really been done well in many years. I think it's paying dividends for the country and for innovation in general.

Previously, we would have a small collection of big contractors, and they would have a certain type of cost-plus contract. There wasn't as much innovation within that sector. But now what we see is this great long tail of innovation going on, where there's a wide range of companies becoming involved in space.

I would hope that the analogy to the healthcare sector would be that as those companies take on new innovation and start getting investment; that they start feeding those benefits out more broadly into the population.

‘Competition Can Work’             

About 10 years ago, we came to the White House and said, "There might be a different way of organizing our space operations."

There had been almost totally a big government-focus and focus on a small number of prime contractors who would then feed out work to other places. We said, "Competition works, and if we can bring a greater sense of competition into the space sector, then that will probably create greater innovation. And long term, that will drive all kinds of benefits: lower-cost access to space and more applications for people on planet Earth.”

There was a lot of resistance to that. To their credit, the (Obama administration) supported that general direction against a tremendous amount of ... It's never a good day when you get nasty letters from Apollo astronauts who are heroes of America.

But it was the right thing because now, 10 years on, you see this incredible renaissance in space innovation. You go down to the Space Coast, which is in Florida, and those folks went through some tough years after the retirement of the space shuttle. But now it is booming.

There are multiple operators down there who are hiring thousands of people and they're flying all kinds of vehicles. Betting on innovation and betting on competition and betting on arrangements between the public sector and the private sector that encourage that direction is almost always the right bet.

Overcoming Resistance to Change

At the end of the day, you have to be confident as a leader in what your underlying tenets are: What are you there to do? What is the fundamental thing that you want to do in an organization?

For us during that time, it was to bring a new sense of innovation to the space industry. And if you know in your heart that that's the right thing, that helps you get through the tough days.

We didn't know who would be the winners 10 years in the future. And there was a lot of resistance on the part of certain entities that had commanding positions at the time.

What we knew was that at the end of the day, there would be greater benefits to the American populace and the space industry writ large if we bet on innovation and if we bet on competition and if we bet on doing things differently.

Everybody who's doing healthcare is going through such a challenging time. I just want to say on behalf of the space industry, thank you for everything that you have done to make our country and our world safer and healthier during this incredibly challenging time. I think if you have that underlying sense that there is something worthwhile to go through, then you can get through those tough days.

Applying Scientific Findings Broadly

Very soon we'll be flying people with different types of disability on a zero-gravity flight. The idea here is not just to open space for those types of people who have a disability, whether it's a mobility disability or a vision disability or a hearing disability, but also, paradoxically by designing for people who have those disabilities, we're going to make space safer for everyone. And we're going to make it possible for people of all kinds to navigate better in the space environment. I think if we can do it in space, then we should be able to do it anywhere.

There's a really interesting story (from) the Mir space station that the Russians had. There was an incident where the whole station filled up with smoke and they had a lot of trouble getting to the escape capsule. If that system had been designed in such a way that it was compatible for folks who had low vision or a vision disability, then everybody would be able to get to where they needed to go quickly. I think that's a great guiding design metaphor for how we should be designing our world down here.

Being Transparent, Learning from Failure

Any revolutionary idea seems crazy before it's been proven.

Communicating that vision of whatever it is that you're going for is so important because you're going to have up days and you're going to have down days. And you have to have a team that has faith that the destination is the right place to go.

In the space industry, we’ve had a lot of failures, and many of them have been quite public. And that's the nature of our business, as it is, I think, probably with healthcare as well.

In the end what I've learned, and I think that maybe personally I didn't always do the right job of, is that transparency is the right way to go in our world today. Because whatever the problem is, people are going to learn about it. And having the reality of being an organization that people can trust is crucial.

If you have that, then you have not just the trust of the outside world that you're going to eventually get to the right place, but you also have the trust of your employees.

It's an easy thing to talk about, but it's hard to do in reality, and I acknowledge that it's hard to do this in reality. One of the interesting leadership lessons that I've had is seeing how SpaceX has dealt with failure. Because they've created a roadmap that embeds learning from failure in a very public way.

When you've established that relationship with your stakeholders, with the public and others, then they actually give you more latitude to fail. Fail forward. But creating that relationship is painful at the front end. And obviously whether it's human space flight or it's medicine, it's not easy to do.