Business Strategy Lessons From Apollo 13
Here are three lessons from the Apollo 13 mission that you can use to improve your strategic plan. If you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13, you might remember that early in the crisis, Gene Kranz, the flight director, gives assignments to his engineers. He cautions them to rely on data, telling everyone to “work the problem,” and not make things worse by guessing.
Throughout the crisis, the astronauts and the team in Houston study the data, perform calculations, conduct simulations, observe the results and then calculate again. They never guess when they don’t have to – they obsess over data to ensure they understand the whole problem and the entire range of possible solutions.
Creating a great business strategy requires the same obsessive attention to data. You have to base your solutions on statistically valid and comprehensive information about your company, your customers, your competitors and your industry.
Whenever you start a strategic planning process, every member of the planning team brings his own paradigms to the discussion. People make assumptions based on their experience, anecdotes and “corporate urban legends” that exist in every company.
Generally, we’ve found that 80% of these assumptions are relatively accurate, but the rest are not. That sounds like a good success ratio until you realize that if every executive is 20% wrong in her assumptions, then the team is seriously misaligned in their views of the current business situation. There’s just no substitute for good data. It level-sets the team and equips them to make decisions with facts instead of hunches.
Another great lesson from Apollo 13 is how the engineers dove into the details to develop and implement solutions. One of my favorite examples is when they realize that they need a round air filter to fit into a square filter box. They don’t waste time discussing it theoretically – they simply gather up everything that they know is available to the astronauts in the spacecraft, and they build a prototype solution. They hand-write detailed instructions about how to use a sock and some duct tape to solve the problem. Then they radio the instructions to the astronauts who implement the solution.
This situation models the second characteristic of a great strategy – your plans must be detailed enough so that everyone knows exactly what to do. Getting very specific is challenging for a visionary executive team that’s used to operating in the stratosphere. Some strategic plans fail at implementation because the strategy team doesn’t agree on who will do what by when – and with which resources.
The movie “Apollo 13” depicts one last extremely important strategy lesson. The flight director knows his team faces huge risks and that the outcome is uncertain, but he refuses to water down the goal. He doesn’t say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could save the astronauts?” or, “Let’s try to save two out of three.” He says from the start that failure is not an option, and he deals with every situation assuming his team can overcome every obstacle. He won’t allow anyone to think otherwise. At one point, a White House representative asks the head of the Apollo program what he should tell the president. The NASA chief gives a dismal assessment, saying, “This could be the worst disaster we’ve ever faced.”
Flight Director Kranz overhears the comment, faces the two men and says, “With all due respect, I believe this will be our finest hour.” Let me ask you: If the flight director didn’t send this strong message to his team, if he showed any signs of doubt, do you think his team might have believed just a little less that they could save the astronauts? Do you think the outcome could have been different? A great strategy is bold, clear and uncompromising; it energizes your whole company around significant and vital goals. And remember, your people want to be on a winning team – your strategy must convey that you are serious about beating the competition.
So there you have it – three lessons from the Apollo 13 mission that will improve your strategic plan. Remember to base your strategy on data, develop detailed action plans, and set goals that build excitement and conviction across your company.