The third-finest movie I’ve seen about the space program was First Man. Marvelous as it was, it was biography, telling the story of Neil Armstrong, a quintessentially American hero.

The second-finest was probably Hidden Figures, about the team of mathematicians who made the early missions possible, overcoming the dual prejudices they faced for being both African American and female. It is an incredible story, about the space program but even more to help us see that while we still have quite a long way to go in overcoming prejudice, we clearly have come quite a long way from where we were.

These two stories rate second and third because they’re about individuals. Remarkable individuals we should remember and honor, but individuals nonetheless.

For my money the truly outstanding work is Apollo 13 — not because it’s a better piece of film-making but because it tells the story of NASA as a profoundly capable organization — one that could not only achieve the remarkable, but one that could adapt to the most intense challenges, and overcome them because and only because it was a profoundly capable organization.

I’m admittedly biased — I once had the privilege of hearing Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz speak about the mission and the movie, for which they served as consultants to Ron Howard to make sure he got it right.

While we’re on the subject, take a few minutes to read Randy Cassingham’s homage to Chris Kraft, not because it honors a man who deserves to be remembered in the same breath as these others, but because it describes his achievement and contribution: he designed Mission Control — not just the facility, but the roles, operating procedures, and all the rest of what made putting human beings into space possible.

In 2015, when Scott Lee and I wrote The Cognitive Enterprise, I’m embarrassed to tell you neither of us thought to mention NASA as the archetypical example.

But it is. From everything I know and have read, NASA is a seriously cognitive enterprise. It’s an organization that acts with purpose, having clear goals and then sensing, interpreting, and responding to changing circumstances so as to achieve them. Which is how it is that NASA landed Mars rovers that exceeded their planned mission lives by 2,500%; launched a spacecraft (Cassini) for a planned four-year tour of Saturn that lasted 20; and that sent the New Horizons spacecraft to visit both Pluto and the Kuiper belt, thereby inspiring astrophysicist and Queen lead guitarist Brian May to record a song named after its destination — Ultima Thule.

What’s most remarkable about NASA — and what we should, as Americans, be particularly proud of — isn’t what it’s achieved but how easily it might have failed to achieve it.

Like all large organizations, government agencies easily slide into bureaucracy. This happened to NASA in the course of its history, resulting in a sad string of mission failures that ranged from embarrassing — the Mars Climate Orbiter missed the red planet because some calculations used the English measurement system while others used metric units — to the tragic Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters. Richard Feynman’s analysis of the latter demonstrates that the core failure was of the organization as a whole, not of incompetent engineers.

What’s extraordinary about NASA is that its leaders didn’t pretend, didn’t duck and cover, and didn’t make politically expedient decisions. They took serious steps to understand what it was about the organization that encouraged mistakes. They then accomplished the truly remarkable — they fixed the organization, restoring its cognitive essence.

KJR is, at its core, about managing and leading effective organizations. As one of its readers you might lead and manage an organization; you might either enjoy the results of good leadership or cope with the consequences of the other kind; or you might fall into both categories.

To the extent you’re responsible for running an effective organization, and even more so to the extent you’re responsible for fixing an organization that’s less effective than it needs to be, you could do worse than use NASA’s leaders as your role models.

Far worse.

Also to the extent you need to fix an ineffective organization, a caution: Effectiveness is the least-stable state of organization. Among the reasons: organizational effectiveness asks everyone involved to subordinate their personal ambitions to the larger aims of the organization as a whole.

Which, among other challenges, means defining the larger aims of the organization as a whole so they’re inspiring enough to make this choice worthwhile.

Authoritarianism is on the rise.

No, this isn’t one of KJR’s occasional thinly disguised political rants. I’m talking about private-sector authoritarianism.

As you might recall if you’ve read Leading IT, you have five ways to make decisions:

  • Consensus: We all agree to it, even if we don’t all agree with it.
  • Consultation: Everyone with a stake in the decision shares their knowledge with the decision-maker and then trusts the decision-maker’s decision.
  • Authoritarianism: The decision-maker makes the decision and announces it.
  • Voting: There’s safety in numbers, so let’s just tally them. Nobody can blame the decision-maker for the wisdom of crowds.
  • Delegation: Turn the decision over to someone else and ask them to make it using one of the remaining four ways to make a decision. It’s the remaining four because delegated decisions shouldn’t be re-gifted.

These five decision styles aren’t a matter of preference, or shouldn’t be. They have very different characteristics. Consensus maximizes buy-in; authoritarianism is quick and cheap; consultation strikes a balance between the two. Done right, delegation puts decisions in the hands of those better-qualified to make them.

Voting has little to recommend it, other than providing a way out when no one person has the authority to make a decision that has to get made anyway.

A couple of decades ago, consensus decision-making became popular in executive circles, pulling consultation and delegation along with it. The theory was that more employees felt empowered … they felt more influence over decisions that affected them … and so would bring more energy and commitment to their work.

It wasn’t a bad theory as these things go. So far as I can tell, though, it’s falling out of favor. Authoritarian decision-making appears, based on my entirely subjective perception that’s the result of an at best accidentally non-random sample of What’s Going On Out There, to be increasingly popular. Consensus and consultative decision-making, in contrast, are more and more associated with group hand-holding coupled with Kumbaya and the singing thereof.

My sense is that this shift away from high-involvement techniques is due to one or another of these three factors: (1) impatience (let’s get on with it); (2) arrogance (I know the right answer so let’s get on with it); and (3) ego (I’m smarter than anyone else involved, so no one has anything important to tell me about the subject that I don’t already know. I know the right answer so let’s get on with it).

Meanwhile, delegation continues to be used but not really. I’m seeing an increase in de-delegation as a fraction of all delegated decisions, de-delegation meaning “I’m delegating this decision to you unless you don’t make the decision I would have made or don’t make it the way I would have made it.”

Delegation, that is, is becoming little more than authoritarianism in disguise.

Is this trend, assuming it is a trend and not just an example of KJR being guilty of plausible blame, really such a bad thing? After all, we all know business is speeding up and authoritarianism’s core value is speed.

True enough. And as OODA devotees will agree, faster decisions, all things being equal, speed up the whole loop, leading to more wins and demoralized competitors.

The problem is, not all things are equal. Slapdash information-gathering (observe) and a poor understanding of context (orient) — natural consequences of authoritarian decision-making — lead to uninformed and poorly thought-through decisions. There’s nothing in OODA theory suggests that, faced with a set of possible choices, any old decision will do.

OODA theory is about speeding up each step in the cycle without diminishing its quality, so you complete the loop with just-as-good information, an undiminished sense of place, decisions that are just as smart, and actions just as disciplined and competent.

And one more thing: OODA, and for that matter most of what’s been written about the importance of speeding things up, is silent on the subject of buy-in. In the interest of filling this gap:

What’s needed to achieve buy-in might very well slow down one or two early OODA iterations.

But failing to achieve buy-in in these early iterations can slow down the iterations that follow. After all, managers and employees whose primary motivational state is apathy are, when the time comes for action, less likely to bring the energy needed for getting the desired results quickly and efficiently.

The difference, it’s said, between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.”

The other difference is ownership: Authoritarians own the ignorance. Apathy is the logical employee response.