The Laws of Risk Leadership
Ted Ro is hardly the typical attorney. He came to NASA’s
Johnson Space Center as an engineer and spent more than 15 years working in
technical organizations, including the Mission Operations Directorate, International
Space Station Program Office, and Technology Transfer Office, before returning
to school in the early ‘90s to study law during evenings and weekends.
After graduating with a law degree, Ro eventually became an
intellectual property attorney at Johnson. From there he went on to serve as Johnson’s
Deputy Chief Counsel and in 2019 he was named Johnson’s Chief Counsel — a role
that serves as an adviser to center leadership and guides the JSC Legal Office.
Ro speaking at the 2019 NASA Legal Conference.
As chief counsel, Ro has leveraged his unique background in mission
operations to bring a mission-focused approach to the legal office.
“We have to be willing to change how we operate to make NASA’s
goals successful,” Ro said. “In 2030, the general public is not going to
remember that an attorney provided advice on a contract. What they will remember
is landing humans on the Moon and inspiring the world. So, we should have the
mindset that our roles need to be done in a way that helps accomplish the
The JSC Legal Office is responsible for ensuring that NASA
is compliant with a wide range government regulations and agency policies, from
ethics training and conflict resolution to procurements and Space Act
Joining the legal office after spending time in the
technical realm, Ro noticed that compliance duties were often at odds with
mission success. Clients frequently required expedited legal advice to keep
programs on schedule, but issuing a quick decision was a challenge as the
compliance mindset required Johnson’s attorneys to spend time to critically
assess every question based on a unique set of facts — no matter whether it was
simple or complex.
Recognizing that not every problem demands a complex
solution, Ro saw an opportunity to adopt risk-leadership approaches to transition
from a traditional compliance-oriented approach to a more mission-focused
strategy that enabled the legal office to work more efficiently.
“As part of the mission-support structure our reason for
existing is to enable mission success,” Ro said. “We understand NASA has
monumental goals and faces numerous external environmental challenges and we
need to be constantly willing to change our business strategy in order to support
To make the office more responsive to stakeholders, Ro’s
team designed a decision-making matrix that uses proportionality to balance
timeliness of response with rigorous legal assessment by integrating the
probability of negative consequences into the decision-making process when
“To an attorney, risk can solely mean negative consequences,
but as an engineer or scientist, risk is probability multiplied by
consequence,” Ro said. “Risk management requires an evaluation of the potential
benefits against negative risk and identifying risk mitigation actions to reduce
probability. Every action has potential benefits, a legal risk, and a
complexity, but it was the probability component and potential benefits that
attorneys may not consider.”
Instead of strictly analyzing negative consequences in the
legal process, which often slowed down the decision-making process, Ro challenged
his team to introduce probability into the equation. For example, if a legal
issue is highly complex but carries a low risk, Ro wants his team to favor quick
responses over rigorous analysis.
The success implementing daring changes to the legal office results in Ro receiving an Outstanding Leadership Medal from Johnson Center director Mark Geyer.
Proportionality has enabled the office to set a goal to
decrease its response time by nearly 40-percent, permitting mission-focused
tasks to move forward more quickly with shorter wait times for a legal
“The notion of proportionality wasn’t a hard sell to my team,”
Ro said. “My team is a typical Johnson team comprised of highly skilled,
creative, and enthusiastic individuals. They get it. They are willing to look
for new opportunities and practice approaches to achieve mission success.”
The culture shift from compliance
to mission has not only improved the
response time for the office inspired the attorneys to develop and rapidly adopt
“Across the board, we need to be willing to change our
mentality and use daring techniques, such as risk leadership, to get to the
Moon by 2024,” Ro said. “It may mean accepting more risk, but we have to do it
smart, where it makes sense and with our eyes wide open. Every little bit helps;
time is a luxury we simply don’t have.”
A prime example of risk leadership is the use of a
contracting method called a Broad Area Announcement (BAA), which NASA is using
to award contracts more quickly. BAA is a tool that allow the government to
request scientific or research proposals from private firms and is proving vital
for Artemis and low-Earth orbit (LEO) Commercialization-related initiatives
such as the Habitat and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module and Commercial
Destination Development in LEO.
BAAs allow NASA to select a contract in a matter of approximately
3-4 months rather than 18-24 months, which is key to landing astronauts on the
Moon by 2024, but the BAA has also challenged the legal team to learn the
complex regulations of this contracting mechanism in a short period of time to
On Halloween, the legal office dressed up as the Johnson mission statement: Dare. Unite. Explore.
The legal office is also using risk leadership approaches to
respond to data rights issues in the wake of an increased use of public-private
partnerships. The office developed innovative approaches to balance a contractor’s
ability to protect its intellectual property with NASA’s security requirements.
These approaches have already been implemented in LEO Commercialization and Extravehicular
Activity (EVA) Suit procurements and are being considered for other Artemis
While implementing these changes to the JSC Legal Office has
been a culture shift, the team has been extremely successful by leaning into a
mission approach and understanding that their role is critical to NASA’s lunar
“We bring value to the agency by enabling solutions within
our legal authority,” Ro said. “We are challenged every day to be as creative
as possible, because NASA demands that. NASA is highly advanced — doing things
that no one has done — so we expect that of everyone across the board.”
With this mindset and a visionary leader in Ro, Johnson’s Legal
Office is creating waves across the agency and innovating NASA’s path to the
Noah J. Michelsohn, Johnson Space Center
Ted Ro is chief counsel at NASA's Johnson Space Center . This story is part 18 of The Directors Series, highlighting Johnson’s mission of Dare. Unite. Explore. Stay tuned for stories from each directorate and find previous stories on the directors website.
Ted Ro, Chief Counsel for NASA's Johnson Space Center.