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Apollo 13 - a Lesson in Teamwork and Collaboration

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 Apollo 13 - A Lesson in Teamwork and Collaboration

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Kristin Baker

Scott Gross

Ken Kruger

Zak Perrault

October 2, 2017

Since the release of the movie, Apollo 13, two quotes have resonated in American pop culture, “Houston, we have a problem,” and “Failure is not an option.”  Both these statements are symbolic of what many have called the successful failure of the Apollo 13 mission. The lessons learned from Apollo 13 reflect the potential for any organization to overcome daunting challenges by using the concepts of teamwork and collaboration.

        Like many current businesses and organizations, NASA in the 1960’s and 70’s was a bureaucracy dealing with budgetary pressures, tight production schedules, competition amongst internal departments, and delivering on ambitious goals. By 1970, NASA had experienced the success of landing on the moon, as well as the tragic deaths of three astronauts during the explosion of Apollo 1.

Apollo 13 was supposed to be another mission to the moon; however, after takeoff a spark in one of the oxygen tanks caused an explosion that severely damaged many of the systems onboard the spacecraft. With only a 15-minute supply of oxygen, both the crew of the spacecraft and mission control had limited time to assess their situation and take immediate action. The crew and mission control decided the only viable option was to move the astronauts into the Lunar Module (LM). However, since the LM was not designed for three astronauts, the removal of deadly carbon dioxide gases was a significant problem. Numerous life and death decisions also had to be addressed. Fuel loss, and the lack of thrust power, required mission control to use the moon’s gravitational pull to “sling” the spacecraft back to earth, and fears that the spacecraft would have burned up during re-entry required precise trajectory calculations. Faced with these harrowing circumstances and intense pressure, the astronauts along with mission control, led by Gene Krantz, used the concept of teamwork and collaboration to solve these complex problems and turn a potential disaster into a success story. (Useem, 1998)

        The definition of teamwork according to Merriam-Webster is, “work done by a number of associates, usually each doing a clearly defined portion, but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.” Unfortunately, this simple definition of teamwork does not adequately capture the complexity of creating and managing effective teams. Rather, the question that warrants additional inquiry is how were the organizational behavior theories of teamwork and collaboration used to solve the complex problems of The Apollo 13 mission?

        The likely success of the Apollo 13 mission began years prior to 1970, when Gene Kranz was selected as the flight director of the Apollo program. In 1967, Kranz was mission director of Apollo 1, a catastrophe that took the lives of three astronauts. From that tragic event, Kranz took immediate responsibility when he stated, “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up.” Kranz recognized early in his career at NASA that in order to be successful and accomplish the mission, he would need to design and assemble a highly skilled and collaborative team that could solve a multitude of complex problems.  (Foust, 2005)

        According to Linda Hill, “Design is a critical element of successful teamwork. New managers must learn to decide what needs to be done, what type of teamwork is needed, who should be on their teams and how the teams will be organized.” (Hill, 2003) Hill’s teamwork design theory was evident during the Apollo 13 mission, as reflected in how the leader, Gene Kranz approached his role as flight director.

Like any strong leader, Kranz’s primary responsibility was to set the agenda for his group. Kranz shared in the belief that high performing teams must embrace the “mission” or as Sinek points out, “why” the group exists.  Like any good manager, Kranz set clear expectations for the team. His mantra was that flight control would be known by two words, “tough and competent.” He expected intense accountability, extreme competence, and perfection. Furthermore, Kranz recognized the stress involved in the fast-paced environment of mission control and those serving on the spacecraft.  Kranz was known to put his team through intense drills and simulations under crisis conditions to determine which engineers and astronauts could effectively work under pressure. (Useem, 1998) Kranz’s atmosphere of high expectations and relentless drills engendered a sense of trust, camaraderie, and understanding – all important characteristics of highly functioning teams.

Most high functioning teams place a high degree of importance on “chemistry”- the ability to work together in a seamless manner with flawless execution.  In this instance, Kranz was very focused on assembling a team of brilliant engineers and specialists, who he knew were academically superior to him. As Hill points out, “Most people have a natural tendency to be attracted to and most comfortable with people like themselves.” In the case of Apollo 13, Kranz knew his own personal limitations. Kranz surrounded himself with a staff that was by his own admission, smarter, more creative, and better problem solvers than himself.

Another area of teamwork design is organizational structure. In preparation for the Apollo 13 mission, Kranz excelled at ensuring that key team members were physically located together so information could be easily shared and understood. Kranz accomplished this by placing members of each of his four teams in the same work area to facilitate the flow of information and build a cohesive team. Additionally, Kranz always had a team of astronauts on call to provide the viewpoint and expertise needed from an astronaut’s perspective. This type of team organizational design was instrumental during the critical stages of Apollo 13. Kranz was able to leverage the talents of astronaut Ken Mattingly in testing the nearly 500 sequential steps needed to power up the command module. (Foust, 2005)

In the case of Apollo 13, Kranz’s team design for decision making appears to be closely correlated to the options outlined by Vroom and Yetton. Many of the critical decisions were either autonomous, delegated, consultative, or jointly made. (Yetton)  Kranz understood some decisions would be his and his alone. In those situations, Kranz made the decision individually as a leader. In the case of solving the problem of carbon dioxide in the LM, Kranz delegated authority to the team of engineers who needed to take a pile of parts in the spacecraft and assemble an air filter that was critical to the survival of the astronauts. As a testament to any good leader, Kranz knew his team was capable of solving this problem and did not interfere with their process or place additional stressors on those engineers. The decisions about the reentry trajectory were made using a consultative approach in which Kranz based his decisions after carefully weighing all expert opinions. In this example, a leader like Kranz needs to trust his experts and understand his own limitations. Lastly, the decision early into the crisis to turn off all power-drawing instruments was a joint decision made by both the astronauts, Kranz and mission control specialists through rational consensus. Good leaders understand that some decisions are best made after obtaining the input of all parties involved, even though it may not be the leader’s first choice. Generally, consensus building and collective decision making leads to greater team engagement and more positive outcomes.


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