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

“Houston, this is Station...”: Mission-critical communication for teams
“CAPCOMs can really make your day.” This simple journal entry by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) shows just how important communication can be to the success of a team orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth.

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.

But being a CAPCOM isn’t just about funneling information to and from the teams that need it. The most effective people in this role have a solid understanding of the context that the team operates in and a trusting relationship with the crew. That journal entry continues: “If a CAPCOM is always saying ‘great job’ or ‘awesome work,’ it only goes so far. The best CAPCOMs are the ones who are to the point, give you the info you need succinctly, and sound like they know what they’re doing and what you’re doing…. A sense of trust builds between the CAPCOM and the crew and positive remarks from the CAPCOM have more meaning.”

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.

NASA’s Mission Control is a large group of teams, with each individual team responsible for a specialized system on the ISS. These teams often sit in different locations, sometimes even coordinating with teams in different countries. With this geographic, cultural, and functional complexity, it’s critical that someone acts as a boundary spanner to orchestrate how these teams work together.

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). Usually, the teams have weeks (if not months) to plan for an EVA. In this case, the plan and prep needed to happen within days to guarantee the crew’s safety. Everyone got to work: the Mission Control team responsible for the coolant system generated solutions to repair the problem while the EVA team created plans for the astronauts to venture outside the station in their spacesuits for the repair. In this scenario, there were two boundary spanners who were critical to the success of the mission: the Flight Director who coordinated the actions of the multiple teams on the ground and the CAPCOM who relayed plans and directions between the crew in space and the teams on the ground during the repair. 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. At NASA, we recognize the importance of good communication and have designed our training to ensure that CAPCOMs can navigate the needs of multiple teams and have a relationship built on trust with each.

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

Read Dr. Landon’s post on using team debriefs to create open feedback channels here.

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. Watch Dr. Landon's re:Work talk here.