#236 from R&D
Innovator Volume 5, Number 9
is Not an Option: Apollo
13 Creativity by Margaret J. King, Ph.D.
by Margaret J. King, Ph.D.
Dr. King is
director of Cultural Studies & Analysis (Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, phone 215-592-8544), identifying cultural values in
products and marketing for business and institutions.
Is your work at
the crisis state? If
so, you may have approached the state where your creativity is
also really at its maximum. You'll
see what I mean when I dissect, from the recent book and movie,
the Apollo 13 mission to the moon.
we've got a problem." These
famous words, spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell from space in April
1970, launched a famous public demonstration of solution-finding.
was made of three components:
the main command module, the service module, and the lunar
landing module. Fifty-five
hours into the mission, a cryogenic tank exploded in the service
module, thus causing loss of oxygen and power to the command
module. From that
moment, the mission was not about success.
It was about something far more important:
solving an unforeseen problem under sudden and unexpected
not an option," Gene Kranz, lead flight director for Mission
Control, announced to the ground crew in Houston as Apollo 13
approached the critical earth-to-moon decision loop.
Did he mean that failure had been an option at one time,
but wasn't now? Perhaps
that was why things weren't working the way they should have.
The mission went
beyond testing physical limits, which the space program had been
doing from the beginning. It
was far more than a contest of athletic, technological, or
engineering prowess. This
was something more: a
case study in problem-solving, a drama of solution-finding played
out with limited resources against unknown odds, using the wits of
two teams: the
three-man flight crew in open space and the computer operators on
not begin with inspiration. It
sometimes is a reactive force, triggered when all else fails.
It’s a response to a new order of things.
We experience our highest creativity not in doing business
as usual, but when there is the most at stake and failure is a
possibility but not an option.
When our fixed assumptions about how things operate won't
do, a new mission must be launched.
"Forget the flight plan," ordered Kranz.
"From this moment on we are improvising a new mission.
How do we get our men home?"
Step by step, the
Apollo crew took their problem apart to see how it worked and
therefore how it could be "fixed"--redefined,
reconfigured, and recreated--to get them home.
What fueled that process was "reverse vision." Instead of figuring forward from their present status, they
had to work backwards from their target:
splashdown in the Pacific.
The gap between present and future was closed by looking at
how everything aboard could fit that future.
Here the objective could not be a straight-line projection
of the present, but "drew" the present toward the
desired state in ways not logically expected.
problem came by fits and starts.
It was soon apparent that this crisis had less to be
"defined" and more "worked."
A new goal was forged from which solutions had to be
devised (then tested on the ground) in rapid sequence.
In fact, the event that caused the tank to explode wasn't
understood until after the astronauts had landed.
The solution was
derived from a series of inductions, deductions, calculations,
simulations, decisions, trials, errors, planning, re-planning, and
execution, all driven by on-the-spot creativity, fuzzy logic, and
incomplete data. These
are the same factors that drive many of our day-to-day
innovations--innovations that surface, under pressure, in coping
motivation plus manipulation skills, ignited by passion and
perseverance-- demonstrated innovation operating in top form.
Together they saved the world from an unthinkable vision:
a lifetime of staring skyward at the orbiting tomb.
The mission was
also an object lesson in change management. The instant they lost the moon as the goal, the goal shifted
to earth. Everything
posed a new challenge or opportunity.
Once the landing itself was no longer an option, each
element of the original game plan had to be reevaluated:
questioned, redefined, and transformed to serve an
alternate purpose. From
its originally designed purpose, each feature of the flight was
transformed by "value added;" whatever performance it
could deliver in its new role.
self-contained lunar landing module was converted to duty as the main
cabin. Energy from
the lunar module was counted and doled out in units normally used
to run a coffee maker; sufficient
energy had to be reserved for re-entry.
In the absence of a working on-board computer, the earth
itself was pressed into service as the fixed focal point to orient
the "burn" phase of the return trip.
potential problem-solving material--which meant problems had to
become opportunities or get lost.
Here, there was neither space enough nor time for anything
that didn't serve to get the team home.
Freezing temperatures, fever, thirst, no sleep, and a
silent radio were endured to stockpile the energy boost that would
be needed to re-enter the earth's atmosphere.
As Kranz put it
somewhere around the third day of the mission, "I don't want
to know what anything is for.
The question now is, what can it do?"
The crew set out to find out, transferring systems from one
capsule to the other, adapting each operation to match this change
problem was solved, the crew members safely landed.
Among the many ideas for this success were many that
hadn’t been considered in the numerous pre-mission rehearsals.
Round holes were squared away to take square plugs to keep
the CO2 buffers
exchanges between the modules was necessary to achieve power in
the final stages. Even
the spaceship’s center of gravity had to be shifted to make it
easier to maneuver with the limited power.
Often Easier to Quit
What can be
gleaned from examining this episode of space exploration for
application to business, research, or relationships—the whole
gamut of problems and problem solving?
First, sudden and severe limitations can evoke the highest
order of creativity, but only if they are not allowed to “abort
the mission.” Second,
the automatic reflex when situations go bad is to get out rather
than to make them better or turn them around.
Third, the knee-jerk answer to loss or failure is to
minimize trauma through damage control rather than in creative
One example of an
“aborted mission” is downsizing just to save face for the
near-term bottom line. The
consequences to morale, productivity, security, and opportunity
are an array of self-reinforcing negative forces, social,
economic, and psychological.
These forces, of course, don’t solve the underlying
problems, which don’t go away.
The worst effect is that this policy of “containment,”
layoffs followed by piling work on the remaining staff, which
threatens their security—all lower creativity, dulling incentive
to solve problems innovatively rather than reactively.
following the astronaut’s example, is to drive the crisis
through the “burn” to a creative solution:
new products, better methods, refined targets, improved
quality, conversion of failed solutions to one problem into
effective solutions to another.
In order to convert chaos and crisis into opportunity,
however, failure must first be precluded as an option.
Once that hatch is closed, solution-finding can begin in
earnest as a serious venture, not as just another human-resource
failure also constructs a tighter box of opportunity. When there is really no available fix-it kit, solutions must
be devised that no one has dreamed of.
Working the problem inside the perimeter—of cost, time,
competition, consumers, technology, legality—forces negotiation
of resources—ideas, brainpower, talent, skills, and know-how
into the most creative channels.
Only under the stress of limits are definitions
reconsidered, ideas reshaped, connections rewired, and
relationships reconfigured. In
this sense, thinking “inside the box,” rather than outside
it, is the more creative act.
The human values
mobilized in the problem-solving process are the catalysts to
isn’t simply applying the tools of science to the job at hand. It involves the culture of creativity, the human mindset, the
“deep structures” that tell us what is important.