#236 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 9          September 1996

Failure is Not an Option:  Apollo 13 Creativity
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.

"Houston, 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. 

The spacecraft 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 limitations.

"Failure is 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 earth.

Creativity need 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?"

Defining the Problem

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.

Defining the 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 with crisis. 

Knowledge plus 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.

Managing Change

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.

The 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.

Everything became 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 of venue. 

Fortunately, the 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 working.  Battery 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.

It’s 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 thinking.

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.

The alternative, 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 excursion.

Closing off 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 innovation.  Creativity 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.

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