Houston, we solved the problem

Houston, we solved the problem

23 April, 2020

“When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

What can you learn from NASA's attempts to bring home a stricken spacecraft? At first you might think not a lot. But look a bit closer an the extraordinary looks like the everyday. So let's recall the events of April 1970.

Not only was Apollo 13 the mission that didn’t make it to the moon, it very became the mission that didn't make it home to earth either. Three people floating in a tin can with a life-threatening problem a long way from home.

That all three astronauts made it safely back to earth was not the result of luck.  

A routine and standard procedure had caused a small explosion which instigated a series of problems for the remainder of the flight. The successful rescue of this mission owes a lot to a process which identified, gathered and interpreted relevant information so together that could develop and implement a successful solution.

Failure shouldn't be an option

Apollo 13's problems were not the first encountered in the lunar programme. On January 27th 1967, Apollo 1 was destroyed on the launch pad while awaiting launch, killing the 3 astronauts aboard. Following this catastrophic failure, NASA’s Chief Flight Director, Gene Kranz, had instigated an 8 stage method for problem solving. That model - to 'work the problem' through proper and thorough procedures - is familiar from many leadership courses today.

NASA 8 Step method for problem solving

Eight steps might sound cumbersome and time consuming, the last thing you need in a crisis. Yet as Apollo 13 flight controller Jerry Bostick said,

“When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

Failure was not an option.

As the problems kept coming, the plan provided clarity of thinking, a better understanding of the options available and the ability to move swiftly from one plan to the next. With each problem the team found the right information to help them develop a working solution.

Pause and think, plan and then act

So the first lesson to take from this event is the value of taking a pause to think prior to acting.

As anyone who has seen the film Apollo 13 will know, NASA - and in particular astronaut Ken Mattingly - had to sift through a lot of wrong information before finding what might work. And they found the right information in some of the strangest places.

It goes without saying that you have having sufficient information that is both appropriate and reliable at each of the eight stages is critical.

Therefore, the second lesson is how important it is to have an understanding of what that information is and how you can use it.

It boils down to four things:

What information do you need to solve your problem

This is a process where you identify what you already know and what you now need to know, understand where and how to find that information and know how to evaluate it so you can use it effectively.

During the film of Apollo 13 you see a time pressured team working through the problem, finding a dead end and evaluating how to reconfigure the solution. What helped them find these solutions was the right information.

They identified what they knew and where the gap in that knowledge was. The team on the ground knew what the astronauts had available, but didn't know how best they could use it. A square peg in a round hole.

They experimented with the resources available. And they evaluated the success of each outcome. Through a process of trial and error they engineered a solution.  They provided the astronauts with clear instructions so they can recreate it.

A solution was successfully found, communicated and implemented. Effective information as a vital tool used in the development of that solution.

Save time, be effective

The information you need to solve a problem comes in many shapes and forms. For the solution to work you need to find useful and reliable information in a logical and structured way no matter how pressing the problem. Rather than being cumbersome and time consuming, adding that structure will likely save you time!

The Astronauts of Apollo 13 we able to fix their problem with the solution developed back on earth using information gathered efficiently, effectively and reliably. For you to overcome the problems you are facing in this current crisis finding the information you need to follow that blueprint is critical.

I know all of us here want to thank all you guys down there for the very fine job you did.

Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Commander

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