Lessons on Tossing Out the Rule Book from Apollo 13

   “Houston, we have a problem!”

    These five words, originally spoken over forty years ago by astronaut Jack Swigert of Apollo 13 on April 14, 1970, immediately captured the attention of citizens the world over. 

    The warning to the Houston Space Center of a major technical fault in the electrical system of one of the spacecraft’s oxygen tanks, immediately sent technicians and scientists into a full-fledged search for innovative solutions to this life-threatening situation.

    For the next seventy-two hours, scores of people worked around the clock to determine what could be done to bring the astronauts safely home.  Creativity meters soared, innovative ideas were explored, and no possible remedy was ignored.  And, as lead flight director of Mission Control, Gene Kranz made abundantly clear, failure just wasn’t an option.   

    The ensuing effort was far more than a contest of athletic, technological, or engineering prowess.  This was something different.  More of a high-stakes drama of solution-finding played out with limited resources against unknown odds, fueled by a compelling desire to positively influence outcomes, for good.  It was a moment in time in which the only real hope of turning things around demanded that everyone involved jettison their old ways of thinking.  The well-rehearsed routines, the “book answers,” and the “way we’ve always done things,”—these long-standing enemies of positive progress we call the status quo—just weren’t going to save Apollo 13. 

    Instead of relying on rote answers, everyone dug deep within their imaginations to find creative means to shape a desirable end. The entrepreneurial spirit of the amazingly innovative and empowering effort that ensued, exemplified Kranz’s early charge to "…forget the flight plan.  From this moment on we are improvising a new mission.  How do we get our men home?"

And home they did get them.

    On 17 April, 1970, three days after that now famous call for assistance, millions across the globe watched as Apollo 13 and its crew splashed down safely into the Indian Ocean. Their rescue provided the world with one of the most powerful demonstrations of solution-finding ever recorded. A reminder of how we often experience our highest creativity when there is the most at stake and failure is a possibility but not an option. 

Without question, stories like Apollo 13 encourage and inspire us by reflecting humanity at its best. But perhaps most importantly, they provide several lessons we can all apply today to become the kind of leaders we want to be and others deserve to see. Here are three lessons that come to mind:

  1. Leverage a Crisis to Promote Out-of the-box Thinking:  The instant the moon no longer became the goal, everything the team faced, both in space and on the ground, posed a new challenge and presented a new opportunity. The unexpected change in plan demanded a reevaluation.  Everything was questioned, success was redefined, and everyone recognized the original plan had to be transformed to serve an alternate purpose. It was only when business as usual was ruled out that real progress toward a viable solution commenced.
  2. Don’t Be too Quick to Cut and Run:  When things don’t go according to plan, the automatic reflex is to get out rather than stay put and try to turn things around for the better. This intuitive response is easy and maybe even understandable because change is hard.  Unfortunately, if we cut and run too early we will almost certainly miss the opportunity to bring our greatest creativity to bear on a problem. Think about it. From the moment everyone associated with Apollo 13 recognized thinking differently about the problem and the solution was a necessity to bringing the astronauts safely home, everything became a possibility.  And when anything’s possible, you’ll rarely ever encounter a problem you and your team cannot resolve.
  3. Adversity Creates Opportunity to Unleash the Best in Anyone and Everyone: As the events of Apollo 13 confirm, unexpected circumstances create unprecedented opportunity for anyone and everyone to become part of the solution. Once formal titles, positions, and ranks went out the window at NASA, creativity skyrocketed, ingenuity increased, and nothing was deemed outside consideration as a possible option.  In short order, people figured out ways to transfer energy from the coffee maker to help power the self-contained lunar module—which itself was transformed into the main duty cabin. Round holes were squared away to take square plugs to keep the carbon-monoxide buffers working; energy from non-critical instruments and systems were rerouted so they could be stockpiled for the energy boost required to reenter earth’s atmosphere. And the list of innovative endeavors continues.  All of course leading to the successful return of three brave American astronauts to earth, seventy-two hours after the initial warning was sounded via the memorable phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”

    What I hope you take away from this story is that none of the positive effects of the people’s actions were realized by fearing change. Instead, each of them was the result of leveraging an opportunity for people to risk stepping out of their comfort zones to make different, more empowering choices. A lesson that we should remember the next time we find ourselves in a situation where much is at stake and failure is a possibility—but not an option.

Apollo13 - MediocreMe.com
John E. Michel is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. An accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster, he has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts and his award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MedicoreMe.com