Film Analogy Friday: Apollo 13 and Innovation

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The film Apollo 13, and the real life story that inspired it, are a treasure trove of innovation thinking.  One clip in particular captures the idea:

The “Square Peg in a Round Hole” problem is brilliant because it shows the value of lateral thinking.  First, the comment “tell me this isn’t a government project” highlights the criticism that government projects are frequently uninspired and include such sideways conclusions as having two different CO2 scrubber filter sizes on different parts of the craft.  Government projects are frequently criticized as being over budget and uninspired because they focus too heavily on process over product. You can almost hear the different engineering teams with a sky-high government contract budget simultaneously coming up with two state of the art CO2 scrubbers, each with different shaped filters. Despite the (no doubt good) reasons for the different sized filters, this design decision is quintessential silo effect where solutions were optimized for each part of the craft, rather than optimized for the craft as a whole.

This failure to collaborate left 3 astronauts potentially poisoned when one system went down. 

However, once the equipment failure rendered the situation dire, the engineers were able to show tremendous ingenuity operating under a more restrictive environment.  Much like regulation, the proper restriction can drive innovation.

We’ve gotta find a way to get this, to fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that.

The Apollo 13 mission failure followed and consequential rescue is littered with other examples of the principles of Collaborative Innovation:

  • Discipline Systems:
    • Many teams were called in to come up with creative solutions, but one team of six University of Toronto engineers led by university professor were given one day to solve a rocket propulsion problem using nothing but slide rules.  This group could have spent six months coming up with precise assumptions and calculations, however they had to have the discipline to solve the problem quickly and accurately.
  • Collaboration:
    • Fixing the Apollo 13 equipment failure required a complete “black-start” power-up of the Command Module, a procedure that was never considered in the design of the craft.  The procedure had to consider many parallel operations as the power source was a critical piece to all other systems on the ship. The flight leadership and engineers from all areas were able to huddle together and develop a complex but workable procedure that accounted for the ship’s limited fuel supply and race against time.
  • Chaos:
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    • I’m stretching a bit here, but the pilots and engineers responsible for Apollo 13 have been frequently credited with never giving up and always being certain that a solution existed for any of the problems that arose.  This mindset was echoed by NASA Flight Director’s line (in the film, not in real-life) “failure is not an option!” Embracing chaos takes confidence, in particular confidence that despite what may rise up you have the tools to complete the task.

The film and real-life events are a template for leaders dealing with crises in their own organizations.  As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  Instead of wallowing in low sales growth, high employee turnover, and meager innovation in your organization embrace the problem, and solve it.

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