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Lessons from Apollo 13 - working the problem

"Failure is not an option," has worked its way into many a group's mission and vision while, "Houston, we have a problem" has become a common colloquialism. The technicians and astronauts in Ron Howard's epic provide rational leadership during a crisis. In essence the movie is also the perfect example of virtual teams. Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), in charge of flight operations in Houston, and Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), commander of the lunar mission display their leadership skills when an explosion occurs on the Apollo 13 craft. Through teamwork, ingenuity, and rational process these leaders solve a nearly impossible problem.

Krantz and Lovell maintain control in a chaotic situation which inspires confidence among the group. Apollo 13 shows that although leaders desire loyalty and passion, it is important to secure their group's confidence first.

Technical proficiency
  • Once the accident happened how did Krantz rely on the skills and expertise of his technicians?
  • How did Lovell work to initiate actions in the spaceship, and was he able to balance that with his technical responsibilities in the craft? How did he do it?
  • What steps does your group and you take to maintain technical proficiency?

  • How did Lovell contribute to the group process when Mattingly wanted to practice the docking procedure again after three hours of practice?
  • When Krantz had the team in the conference room how did he establish the goal and then how did he go about motivating others to achieve the goal of returning the space craft safely to earth?
  • Did Lovell make the right call when faced with the challenge of forcing Mattingly to stay behind because of the fear of measles?
  • How does a leader successfully build a strong team, to be able to make critical decisions?
  • How is your team doing?

Effective communications
  • Even as havoc reigns in Mission Control, Krantz asks his team to "Work the Problem." He then listened to the experts report in on their areas of the mission. How did his effective communications set the stage for a successful recovery?
  • Krantz says that "Failure is not an option" and Lovell told his crewmates "I intend to go home." By clearly stating their ideas and vision how did it direct the teams towards mission accomplishment?
  • Whose the best communicator you’ve had to deal with at work? What makes them different?

Vision development and implementation
  • JFK’s vision: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."
  • How does a stated vision focus the group and bring a team together?
  • Lovell says, "Columbus, Lindberg, and Armstrong; it is not a miracle for man to walk on the moon, we just decided to go."
  • What’s the vision at your group? Has everyone decided "to go?

Conflict management
  • How did Lovell deal with stress and conflict in the LEM?
  • How did the CO2 challenge help the crew to overcome the conflict they were experiencing?
  • Is there more or less conflict when people are busy and focused or when there is less to do and they have time on their hands?
  • How did Krantz and Lovell go about alleviating conflict between the crew and the medical team?

Decision making and problem solving
  • How did the team work the “Power” problem?
  • Right after the explosion Krantz’s asks Mission Control "What do we have on the Space Craft that’s good?" Why did he ask this question?
  • How did it assist in making the correct decision to shut down the fuel cells?
  • Does everyone in your group ensure that all the correct information is available?

Creativity and innovation
  • There are many positive leadership qualities displayed in Apollo 13. How did Krantz create an environment within the Mission Control team to ensure they were able to figure out how to solve the CO2 problem with a "Square Peg in a Round Hole!"
  • Lovell states at the end of the movie; "Thousands of people worked to bring the three of us back home." How did creativity and innovation make the "Successful Failure" a reality?
  • How does your group build on lessons learned?


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