It’s Rocket Science! Another leadership lesson from a mission of Captain Hanks

Prefer to watch rather than read?  Click here to watch the video. (This one is much better on video)

Remember Apollo 13?  The time when Tom Hanks got together with Kevin Bacon and the other guy and tried to fly to the moon?  Then the spaceship went BANG! and they had to try to get back.

To save power, they had to move to a smaller area of the craft, which created an issue as the carbon dioxide filters weren’t designed for that situation.  Too much carbon dioxide in the air is not conducive to being alive, so the obvious solution was to take the one from the bigger area of the craft and use that.

Here are the two filters:

The one on the right was from the bigger area, the one on the left from the smaller (yes, physically bigger but not as filtery).

So the job was to make the one on the right fit into the hole for the one on the left.

Literally…square peg into a round hole!


Not so much when the only equipment you have is whatever is on the stricken spacecraft a couple of hundred thousand kms away.

Solving It

Well first, they chucked everything that was in the spacecraft onto the table – they had all that stuff from the various simulators.

Then the leader made context and the solution clear:

“The people upstairs handed us this one and we gotta come through.  We gotta find a way to make this… fit into the hole for this… using nothing but that”.

And then….they got to work, building the most unremarkable thing you’ve ever seen:

…which worked.


Here’s what was going on there that we can learn:

1. The whole system was in the room

This was a gathering of all who could possibly help.  (Actually, in this case a gathering of white men who could help…NASA in the 60s was no shining light of diversity). Not a two-person conversation making a quick attempt at an answer.  We need to get the system in the room if we want to solve a problem for real.

2. Clear on what looks like when solved

The leader at the start gave clear context and what the solution needs to achieve.  Didn’t go into solving, just created a crystal-clear picture of the situation and what ‘done’ looks like.

3. All the angles on the table

In this case the table was literally filled with equipment that the engineers could sift through.  In your organisation, this will include some data, but more importantly we need everyone’s angles.  What they see from their perspective, what they feel, and importantly…their needs.

Needs come from what people are responsible for. These have to be out there too.  In the NASA case the astronauts need went without saying – we need a solution that lets us live.  In the workplace the needs might not be as heavy, but they are still legitimate – within budget, not breaching policy etc. 

Don’t dismiss these needs as ‘blockers’ or some other word which means “I want to pretend that’s not real”.  Get that stuff on the table too.

Get all angles on the table before any solving takes place.

4. Solved the bloody thing

Then they came up with a solution.  This part is not the key lesson.  The solution was arrived at because of the steps that occurred prior. 

Bringing it Home

Stop going straight to solve, not being able to find an immediate answer, then declaring it impossible.  Work through the steps, whether it’s a small production issue or a full strategy refresh.  It’s the same process.

Nothing new here….you know this.  Just needs some discipline.

Now…over to you.

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