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What We Can Learn From The Apollo 13 Re-plan

Huston,we’ve got a problem” these legendary words were by astronaut James Lovell from Apollo 13 to the mission control in Huston when the team on-board discovered the the damage to the service module caused by an oxygen tank blow-up cutting down power and water supply. With 58 hours into the lunar mission, the priorities of the mission had shifted drastically. A moon landing was no longer an option, getting the astronauts back alive was priority number one. At that time the crew was were still 200,000 miles away from earth. It was time to revise the plan.

So why am I talking about the Apollo 13 today? Recently I was involved in a grueling program re-plan exercise that spanned over 7 weeks. I know the 7 week duration will  raise a few eyebrows, but with a program budget close to 40 million and the program directly impacting 10 billion of the organizations revenue, every day of those 7 weeks mattered (yes, including weekends). By the time we came out of the re-pan, the team had a solid plan. A plan that the team was confidence on executing and a plan that the stakeholders had absolutely no problems supporting. As we went about socializing the re-plan outcomes, a company director brought up the Apollo 13 story.

The Apollo 13 incident and the subsequent re-plan is a tale of inspiration, courage and heroism  - Here are 5 key things that the project and program management community can learn from the Apollo 13 re-plan.

#1 Problem Identification – Address the main one first!

The ability to quickly identify and clearly define the problem is critical. Imagine the crucial time that would have lost , if the Lovell and his team would not have realized the problem. Not only do you need to identify the problem but must be able to clearly define it. This comes first before you can take steps to address it. Also equally important is the ability to differentiate between a risk and an issue. Lets face it, the best risk management plans may not always turn up as planned.You must keep revisiting your risks and be able to identify when the risk has been realized and when it is no longer an uncertainty but a real issue. The oxygen tank blow up and the ensuing damage to the service module was a reality, it is now a problem or an issue and hence should be managed as such. This might not always be easy, specially when there are multiple issues. The blow up of the oxygen tank, the disruption of electricity and water supply were all problems, but main problem at hand was identifying a return trajectory for the astronauts with limited power they had at hand.

#2 When the stakes are high, failure is not an option – Plan well!

Obliviously the stakes were very high on Apollo 13, human life was at stake. Chances are the stakes my not be nearly as close on  your project or programs, but nevertheless when your enterprise initiative’s budget is runs into millions and the impact into a few billions the stakes are still reasonably  high. When the stakes are that high you cannot leave anything to chance. You need to plan and plan well. I have always maintained the best plans are worthless without execution, but that does not undermine the importance of planning. Executing without a solid plan is not executing, it is just experimenting.

#3 Conflict Management –  Get the focus back on the goal!

Both Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz  (the flight director at NASA who is credited with directing the safe re-entry procedure for the astronauts ) were great leaders who managed conflict effectively. While Jim managed a crew that was under stress,  Kranz on the other hand managed conflict in a high octane environment. Both used different methods of conflict management but did it well. While Lovell used the influencing method, Kranz sought to use authority. Conflicts cannot be avoided always, conflicts ‘may’ not always be harmful but as a project or a program manager it is important to ensure that the conflict does not get better of the larger vision or goal. If that happens then its time for the extreme.

#4 The Team – Right Individuals and Stewardship!

Teamwork is critical and each individual must understand and realize why he or she is a critical part of the team. Kranz was a leader but each individual of his team was critical for the technical proficiency that ultimately was responsible getting the astronauts back safely. “A chain is as strong as its weakest link”  A team is like a chain and the weak links must be corrected or removed. Two days before the launch Ken Mattingly was asked to stay behind due to a fear of measles after being found to have been exposed to the infection. The management did not want a weak link on the Apollo 13 mission The team’s safety was more important than an individual. As important as it is to have the right members on the team it is also equally important to ensure each team member understands his part in the team has a sense of stewardship with respect to his or her deliverable.

#5 Lessons Learned – Learn from mistakes!

Bringing the men back safely was the project goal. However having accomplished that, there were a series of investigations that were initiated on not only what went wrong and how to prevent but also what went right i.e. the successful re-plan of the Apollo 13 mission. Investing time and resources to conduct a lessons learned exercise can be extremely beneficial for the organization. One important thing here is to ensure the outcomes of the lessons learned exercise is published and made available to the appropriate audience. A well conducted lessons learned is a powerful decision making and as well as a preventive tool for future initiatives.

If you look closely these are also some of the basics principles of good project and program management aka common sense. What is your most inspiring moment from the Apollo 13 mission?



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