“Houston, we have a problem.” In the 35 years since the Apollo 13 space mission, these words have been repeated as a universal metaphor to connote a critical situation. When people are overwhelmed by the challenges and perils facing them, this phrase effectively communicates the gravity of the problem. What usually follows is the other famous quote from the movie “Apollo 13”: “Failure is not an option.” It is a clarion cry for a solution.
Problem or Predicament?
The saga of Apollo 13 is so well known that leadership trainers and executives have utilized it as an example of effective leadership. On closer review, the leadership was effective because of what it was not. It was not presumptuous or overbearing. The crew returned safely from its mission because Gene Kranz, mission flight director, issued a clear and specific directive to the mission control team: Return the crew safely to Earth. That is the type of leadership that people thirst for from their corporate and government leaders. Too often, leaders do not issue clear objectives. Instead, teams are presented with predicaments to ponder, instead of clearly articulated problems to solve.
“Failure is not an option” does not connote leadership. It is for that reason that Gene Kranz did not utter those words, despite the depiction in the film. That pronouncement would have been useless to the Mission Control team that was trying to solve a life-or-death crisis.
If the phrase is not historically accurate, what is its origin? According to Mike Bostick, when Apollo 13 researchers gathered information for the movie, a scriptwriter interviewed his father Jerry, a mission flight controller. Jerry Bostick's actual statement was, “We just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.” That clear and reasoned approach to solving a problem was rewritten and given to actor Ed Harris, who played the role of Gene Kranz. So, the team's deliberative decision-making and problem solving was synthesized into an oft-repeated sound bite.
Leadership = Objective Setting + Decision Making
The Mission Control team did not strive to be innovative. Their innovation was a byproduct of effective problem-solving. To facilitate innovation and organizational effectiveness, we must first expunge the sound bites from our leadership vocabulary. “Give 110 percent,” “Think outside the box” and “Failure is not an option” should be replaced with:
- Leadership that is objective-focused.
- Collaboration that utilizes the unlimited cognitive bandwidth of the team.
- Decision-making and problem-solving methods that have certifiable efficacy.
Think back to the scene in Apollo 13 when the Mission Control team comprehends the gravity of the challenge facing them. To return the crew safely the team collaborated and defined the three critical success factors. The engineers collaboratively decided that fuel, breathable air and guidance were the only factors to be considered. Those three parameters defined the boundaries of their problem-solving universe.
Circling and Barking
A former colleague from Texas had an effective method for keeping focused during problem-solving sessions. He would say that the team was “circling around and barking at it” when it failed to make progress. At this very moment, there is a great deal of circling and barking taking place in many conference rooms in corporations throughout the world. To stop the circling and to muzzle the barking, teams require a process that can:
- Improve organizational efficiency.
- Increase workgroup effectiveness.
- Facilitate individual contribution.
Director Ron Howard effectively demonstrated such a process in Apollo 13. He showed, for one, leadership that is focused on setting and communicating objectives. Secondly, he presented decision-making and problem-solving that produce solutions that are measurable and timely. A methodology that emulates this effective problem-solving process must:
- Focus on the objective.
- Be inclusive of all team members.
- Be convergent (i.e., determine where the solution is, and what it is).
- Consider all options and failure is not one of them.
- Be time-critical to the requirements of the task.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 13 space mission. Commemorating the event, the engineers were honored for their work in saving the lives of the crewmembers. It was the engineers' resourcefulness that gave the crew breathable air by cobbling together an air scrubber composed of cardboard, plastic bags and duct tape that removed the carbon dioxide from the cabin. Befitting the moment, the award was presented to the engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The success of the mission was based on setting a clear and concise objective, and empowering the team to develop the solution. This is a historic example of great leaders whose leaderless methods enabled their teams to produce historic achievements. Teams achieve greatness with effective leaders, not more leadership.
Vincent M. Cramer is the author of “Cramer's Cube” and the founder of Winchester Consulting Group, an organizational development and training company. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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