During May I took some time out and watched Apollo 13 with the family. I remember the reality of this playing out in my childhood, and was amazed then. The film prompted me to go and check how accurately it portrayed what actually happened in mission control. It was pretty close.
Houston, We have a problem…
As a reminder, the astronauts had been instructed to ‘stir the tanks’ – a pretty routine manoeuvre. A combination of minor faults in assembling the spacecraft meant that there was an electrical short-circuit and the tank exploded. For about 8 minutes the spaceship had been venting gas, tumbling and the three astronauts were struggling to regain control. The mission controller (who manages all aspects of the space flight) and the flight controller (who communicates with the spaceship and guides the astronauts on activities related to its journey) were trying to understand what had happened as system after system reported errors and faults. Speed was of the essence. There were two elements of leadership that the mission controller showed in those moments that I think were crucial in saving lives.
Firstly, the mission controller (Eugene Krantz) stopped the flight controller focusing on what was wrong. He said “Let’s look at this from the point of view of status, what have we got on the spacecraft that’s still good”
A few minutes later he also said “Let’s work the problem team, let’s not make things worse by guessing”
A lesson for our time.
I thought it was a great lesson for our current times. As I’ve reflected on the progress that I’ve made in my business over the last month I realised how much of it was down to focusing on what remained good. Especially true now we are in in the depths of one of the biggest changes in the working environment that we will ever see in our lifetimes.
I also choose many years ago to consciously focus on what I actually know at each decision point. Of course, there are times, in fact, it’s usual, to make decisions with incomplete information. Too easily assumptions can unconsciously be made and they can appear very real. Getting back to what you actually know is so important. I recall talking to a client this month who was a little despondent that a prospect had not responded to a proposal, nor the follow-up emails, and a voicemail. I asked “What do you actually know?” and we agreed that all we really knew was that a response hadn’t been forthcoming, we didn’t know why. The prospect wasn’t ignoring things, something else had taken precedence. They loved the proposal and the deal is done.
The story of Apollo, 13 is not just one of dealing with the immediate crisis. It continued for many days. The teams guided the spacecraft around the moon and back towards earth, many issues remained, many new ones appeared. Each time they worked the problem. We know (spoiler alert) that the spacecraft did return to earth safely. All that work paid off.
If we take the same approach in our businesses, focusing on what we know, not guessing and keeping hold of what is still good then we will have more success. We should be doing what works and doing more of it. Then we can all succeed to bring our businesses through this crisis successfully and stronger. My reflections on May confirmed this as a time for optimism and positive, intentional, purposeful action. I wish you well in June.
How can we get a better understanding of where we are? The Building Better Business Audit (click here…) will help you identify where your business has strategic strength and areas you can focus on to improve. With that knowledge, you can work the problem, you don’t need to guess. The report gives you certainty on what to do next.