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Apollo 13: five crisis
management lessons

Apollo 13: five crisis
management lessons

By Virginie Briand, Owner and Managing Partner Consulting

Saturday April 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 epic lunar mission that became one of the greatest adventures in space history. The operation was dubbed a ‘successful failure’ - ‘failure’ because it never achieved its prime objective of landing on the moon and ‘successful’ due to the astounding feat of teamwork from those who pulled together to save the crew.

56 hours and 330,000 km from earth, an explosion on board forced the crew to abandon all thoughts of reaching the moon. Despite over 1,000 hours of mission-specific training, the entire team and crew were faced with new and unexpected challenges to urgently repair onboard systems in the module to keep the crew alive and, make course corrections to get the astronauts back to Earth safely.

Apollo 13 is a story of resilience, ingenuity, courage and adaptability and one so dear to us. Twelve years ago, Michael Meyer and I launched our business based on this outstandingly inspirational mission naming ourselves 19:13 - the time the Apollo 13 spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Centre in 1970. Since then, motivated by this mission, we’ve helped bring a vast array of our client’s ‘home’ – supporting them to wins hearts and minds and achieve success through brilliantly relevant solutions.

Adapt or die

Apollo 13 is a modern parable of crisis management, leadership, and teamwork. Although it took place 50 years ago there is still so much we can learn from this event, particularly in recent weeks during the epidemiological crisis that has engulfed us.

This historical space mission is a perfect example of remote teams working together in an exemplary way, of decisive leadership with a clear vision and, crucially, of creative ingenuity: coping with challenges by innovating and adapting in response to a situation. So many of us have encountered these elements over the past weeks, handling extreme crisis and change and we are likely to continue facing further challenges in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

As the Apollo 13 mission has taught us, those with the ability to respond quickly and adapt will be better prepared to navigate uncertainty successfully as it arises.

Crisis lessons learned

Lesson #1:

Exemplary leadership

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Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 and mission control’s flight director, Gene Kranz, expertly demonstrated the importance of calm in the midst of chaos after disaster struck the ill-fated mission. Their ability to maintain control in such a critical situation inspired confidence amongst the teams in space and on the ground.

In mission control, Kranz’s clear prioritisation and single-minded vision for people to ‘work the problem’ and get the astronauts back to Earth alive, prevented the team from disintegrating and set the new direction soon after the crisis emerged. With the right team formation and clear instruction, flight director Kranz was then able to relinquish control and trust in his team of technically proficient experts to work without deviation to find the right solution in a timely way.

These enduring lessons demonstrate the power of leading with accountability, clarity and astute decision-making, without preference or bias. In simple terms: set the vision, form your A-team and trust it.

Lesson #2:

Timely communications

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Clear, direct and frequent communication is essential during a crisis. Communication with the Apollo 13 spacecraft was channelled through one team member from mission control, known as CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator). This single line of communication ensured only timely, specific and clear information was given to the crew. The CAPCOM was a trained astronaut and could empathise with the crew in space; messages were therefore relevant, positive and proactive and kept the team informed of what they needed to know at the right time. On Earth, mission control’s team of project managers was vast; coordinating so many people required constant communication and a culture of openness.

Communicating early, frequently and with relevance is one of the most important elements during a crisis and helps to mitigate fallout from the situation. Today with so many communication channels available it is also vital to be consistent and coherent. Think: consistency, clarity, compassion.

Lesson #3:

Supreme teamwork

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“I will stand behind every decision you make. We came into the room as a team and we’ll go out as a team.” — Gene Kranz, Apollo 13 NASA Flight Director.

The Apollo 13 mission is one of the best examples in history of teamwork under extreme pressure. The team worked intensely and selflessly around the clock for 87 hours straight on their single objective: to get the crew home.

Kranz understood that his team as a whole were greater than the sum of their individual parts and instructed teams to take ownership of their specialist areas, to collaborate and to act on problem-solving. Empowered, the teams worked tirelessly to devise, test and implement ideas and solve problem after problem that they encountered, interrogating their recommendations as they went to strive for absolute certainty. Tested to their limits, hundreds of people worked the problem in mission control, but their cultural drive and determination meant they simply refused to fail.

While conditions were far from ideal in this high-stakes scenario, the Apollo 13 team demonstrated that collaboration, adopting a test and learn approach and remaining steadfastly focused on a common goal led to their creative problem solving and outstanding collective performance.

Lesson #4:

Absolute adaptability

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The on-board explosion had caused fatal damage to the spacecraft: systems had to be fixed to reduce rising CO2 levels inside the Apollo 13 craft to make the trip home possible. Limited equipment in the spacecraft called for extreme resourcefulness. NASA was wary of short-term inventiveness and creativity but when mission control was left with no other choice, it approached the task with a cautious yet open mind.

Teams improvised. Checklists developed over years were replaced with checklists developed over days. Eventually a solution was found: the ‘mailbox’ was created and tested thoroughly before the idea was suggested to the astronauts, who were then clearly briefed on how to recreate it in space with repurposed on-board material. It worked.

Commander Jim Lovell later described this improvisation as ‘a fine example of cooperation between ground and space’. The scenario demonstrates the importance of being able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. This ability enhances organisational resilience, ingenuity and creative innovation to reimagine and reinvent when required. In a crisis there really are two options: adapt or die.

Lesson #5:

Preparing for the unpredictable

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The Apollo 13 crew spent over 400 hours in simulators and flight controllers participated in numerous pre-mission simulations of problems with the spacecraft in flight. NASA’s rigorous preparation, rehearsal, testing and existing procedures proved to be highly adaptable when faced with the new set of issues raised from the Apollo 13 accident.

Yet, most often a crisis is unpredictable. In the eye of a new storm, there may be no precedent for specific action required, as was also the case for Apollo 13. Where there was no precise contingency in place, teams, equipped with their pre-mission preparation, applied past learnings to new improvisation techniques and with the same meticulous obsession and attention to detail they used for everything else: the aim was to reduce risk. This process led to faster, more reliable outcomes.

Whilst every eventuality cannot be planned for with exact precision, most crisis situations benefit from a predetermined, planned and well-rehearsed course of action should an issue arise. Preparation is key.

Failure was ‘not an option’

50 years later we remember Apollo 13’s triumph over tragedy. The solutions to save the space mission that came so close to disaster has repeatedly been referred to as NASA’s finest hour and the response to the emergency by the steel-willed team, as outstanding. It is a shining example of NASA’s innovative minds working together to save lives.

A little-known fact: whilst the mission failed to reach the Moon it succeeded in setting a world record for reaching the highest altitude attained by a crewed spacecraft at 400,171 km from Earth.

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The flight of Apollo 13 provides valuable lessons in leadership, communication, resilience, creative problem-solving, courage and teamwork when dealing with a crisis. Over the weeks to come, 19:13 will be marking this truly inspiring feat, recognising the impact and need for response in times of crisis and change, the importance of adaptability, the benefits of pulling together to utilise diverse skills, and to wholly embrace innovative thinking; aspects that I am certain can benefit us all right now.

Virginie

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