Deliberate Innovation
Innovative Thinking on Apollo 13

It is 40 years this week since the Apollo 13 astronauts reported “Houston we’ve had a problem” and their chance to land on the moon was gone. The only mission remaining for the three crewmembers and the team back at Kennedy Space Center was to get the astronauts home safely, but the odds were against them.

As we mark the anniversary of the mission that came so close to disaster, but still returned home safely, perhaps it is fitting that we take inspiration from the thinking and actions of the astronauts and mission controllers back in 1970. Here are some quotes from the NASA heroes that I find interesting.

“If I had just waited for some miracle I’d still be up there” – Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Commander

With lives at stake it would be difficult to believe that anyone involved would do anything other than their utmost to solve the problem, but this statement is relevant to working in organisations of any type. Innovative people don’t wait for problems to be solved by good fortune, by someone else or just hope they’ll go away. You can see Jim Lovell talking about his experiences commanding Apollo 13 on this link:

“…as we worked our way through solving one crisis after another, our percentage of success increased”– Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Commander

It is rare that any serious problems is resolved by one ‘silver bullet’ solution and far more common that a whole range of part-solutions are necessary, each getting you one stage closer to success. Realising that can be helpful, since once you accept that no one idea will actually solve the problem on its own it is easier to consider the value of the ideas you have.

“You can not operate in this room unless you believe that you are Superman, and whatever happens, you’re capable of solving the problem.”

“Failure is not a option”– Gene Kranz, NASA flight director

The keyword here for me is ‘believe’. It could perhaps be assumed that anyone selected to work in mission control would be highly competent, indeed probably the best in their field, but without a belief that they have it in their power to solve the problem they would not have been successful. This is what Gene Kranz demanded from his team and what today’s managers need to be just as insistent about.

For many one big obstacle to creativity is self belief. Some say ‘I’m not the creative type’ and that may be one of a few small things they need to change to be able access some more of their innate ingenuity.


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