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Apollo 13 Teamwork Case - "houston, We Have a Problem" and "failure Is Not an Option"

Essay by   •  December 7, 2012  •  Case Study  •  3,656 Words (15 Pages)  •  1,917 Views

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"Houston, we have a problem" and "Failure is not an option", from the movie Apollo 13 released more than a decade ago, are two popular phrases in our cultural vocabulary today. They are both historically accurate as well as symbolic of the attitudes that made the Apollo program in general a success. Ron Howard directed the 1995 motion picture based on the true story of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert, a team of astronauts reassigned to a space flight with diminished preparation time. That routine mission to the moon suddenly became a survival mission to return home to Earth safely. The film details the circumstances affecting two separate but cohesive teams. The purpose of this group report is to identify the critical events, explain the underlying causes of why these events happened, and draw logical conclusions about the team's performances as related to effective teamwork and leadership, creativity and innovation.

Gene Kranz, the legendary flight controller who uttered the "failure is not an option" line, touched on how he and his fellow flight controllers salvaged a mission and shaped America's space efforts during a talk at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Kranz, in his speech, emphasized the importance of teamwork as an essential element in mission control. "There, we learn the difference between the 'I' and the 'we' component of the team," he said, "because when the time comes, we need our people to step forward, take the lead, make their contribution, and then when they're through, return to the role as a member of the team" (Foust, 2005). Kranz added that mission controllers developed "chemistry" as a team and how such a "chemistry leads to communication that is virtually intuitive" and vital to the success of the team (Foust, 2005).

During the early days of the US space program, that chemistry had to develop quickly as different people, ranging from engineers fresh out of college to former test pilots were thrown together with a directive from the nation to safely and successfully launch humans into space. "In those days, many of us came in from aircraft flight testing, and our egos were much bigger than this auditorium," he said. "It was tough to get people to work together, but we knew that success would only come as a team, so we became one, and we learned to check our egos at the door" (Kranz, 2000).

It was that commitment to success - the origins of "failure is not an option" - that guided that first "return to flight" in the late 1960s with Apollo, leading to the rescue of Apollo 13. It was the teamwork that had been forged in mission control over the years that helped made that rescue possible. He recalled an effort during one phase of the rescue to put the spacecraft into a "barbecue roll" to ensure the spacecraft was evenly heated by the Sun. The effort required close coordination of the mission controllers, who had to step through the process again when an initial effort to put the spacecraft into the roll failed. "This was probably one of the finest examples of real-time teamwork I'd ever seen," Kranz said (2000).

The Dynamics between Members of the Group in relation to the Creative Process

The definition of team dynamics could be described as the fluid and on-going interaction between and among team members, their actions and reactions. Team dynamics relate to the interpersonal and interdependent process of work, how things get done by and through people, and how team members relate to their task and to each other. Dynamics involve processes of communication, decision-making, leadership and sharing of power, and include the development of norms and expectations. Team dynamics is concerned with the interaction between members of the team, and how this relates to the performance of the team.

The team dynamics of the Apollo 13 mission were very good. In the beginning they were trained to understand each other's idiosyncrasies and see how the skills of each individual can be best used to support the team. Shortly before the mission there was a problem and part of the crew must be replaced by someone new. That created some tension between crew members but overall the leadership on the mission was very effective in ensuring that the team not only got along but worked well with one another. One can see how the circumstances might have created a negative mentality and this is where the leadership within the mission kept the crew members focused on using their skills to keep busy and work together to ensure their safe arrival back on earth.

The Apollo 13 and probably many other NASA missions prove to be a great example for good team dynamics. They generally have strong leaders who are good at mobilizing resources to coordinate an outcome that is desirable. One important factor that we see here is that the leader does not always make every decision. The best leader in a dire situation, such as that in the Apollo 13 scenario, is one who has a very good understanding of the objectives and the individual skills of each team member. By using the skills of each individual and ensuring that the team is high-functioning, the leader can help make the best positive outcome plausible. These very team dynamics allowed creativity between the flight and ground teams to flow continuously and cohesively and thus got them back to each safely in the end.

The creativity that was shown by the two teams was one of great innovation and also one that held potentially deadly consequences. Margaret J. King, in her article Failure is not an Option: Apollo 13 Creativity, pointed so well that the ability of a team who is not going to accept failure is going to be much more creative (1996). She described this by saying that "closing off failure also constructs a tighter box of opportunity" and "when there is really no available fix-it kit, solutions must be devised that no one has dreamed of" (1996). The more restrictive the time, costs and resources are, the more people are pushed into a type of survival mode. "The human values mobilized in the problem-solving process are the catalysts to innovation" (King, 1996).

What is important for business managers to take away from this lesson is the ability of leadership to create and instil the type of mentality that failure is not an option. Obviously within the business environment, situations are rarely that of life and death. However, creating a scenario for teams who do not accept failure is very important in creating a culture for creativity and innovation to flourish. In the absence of time and sometimes capital and other resources, teams are going to have to rely on one another's skills

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