Small experiments, big change: A practical strategy to build an innovation process at NASA that lasts

How NASA used quick experiments to test and build a new innovation process.
Case study for business consulting work involving strategy, design thinking, negotiation, lean experimentation, and innovation.
  • Case Study

Project Overview

The Human Factor worked with NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) Project, a division in NASA that explores pressing socio-technical problems, imagines aviation futures, and identifies high-value opportunities for their aeronautic research division to invest in.

Challenge: CAS had traditionally used a “pitch” method to choose the right innovation problems to tackle, and wanted to rethink their approach. They asked, How might NASA bring in human-centered design (HCD) methods and processes, so it may be able to understand its role in far-reaching systems? Further, how could HCD methods be applied in a useful way for NASA – a large organization with strong processes, teams, and cultures already in place? 

Approach: Wanting to learn something practical for NASA that could be immediately applied to a new innovation process, our joint team decided to run a series of short (1-1.5 week) experiments with CAS project teams. We decided on the overarching goals of the program, and the hypotheses we wanted to test in the first experiment. Importantly, the NASA team did not want to interrupt the flow of work for participating project teams – the ‘observation’ part of the experiment needed to be lightweight and non-intrusive. 

Results: Our short, one-week Experiment 1 not only answered a hypothesis about the new process, but also revealed a deeper understanding of how to create behavior change around a new method at NASA. The short experiment also led to resourcing and sprint structure insights – we began understanding how to best leverage peoples’ time and energy in any future process. Our joint team immediately built those results back into the experimentation plan, and planned three more ‘micro’ experiments for the upcoming months.

Project Timeline

  • In September, the team aligns on a vision for the experiment series – to test a new process, rolled out a few different ways.
  • A working team in NASA is identified to participate in the experiment.
  • In October, the experiment is run, observed, and analyzed. Our joint team has answered some of our questions on what works and (importantly) what doesn’t. Key outstanding questions roll into Experiment #2.

Project Details

  • One, one-week-long behavioral experiment.
  • The working team participating in the experiment had five NASA members who understood they were participating in an experiment around innovation and research methods.
  • The experiment did not interrupt the flow of work. The team had a functional output at the end of the week. 
  • Two human-centered designers facilitated the session, and one field researcher was observing and taking notes. 
  • Over the course of the week, the team used a variety of facilitation methods, such as synchronous and facilitated activities on an online whiteboard, as well as asynchronous working time.



How to design a new innovation process that fit into NASA’s unique and complex structure.


Fast, 1-1.5 week experiments that tested ‘slices’ of a new potential process.


Continuous refinement of the new innovation process, additional experiments planned, and unexpected insight around resourcing, sprint structure, and behavior change within the organization – all without interrupting the flow of work.

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