Personal Growth

This 8-Step Problem-Solving Method Saved the Crew of Apollo 13

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Think about the toughest problem you ever had to solve. We're guessing it wasn't quite as tough as the Apollo 13 disaster. You know, the "Houston, we have a problem" problem. No judgment — we've never been in that kind of high-stakes situation either. But we can learn something from it: namely, the foolproof process flight director Gene Kranz implemented for exactly such an occasion.

Apollo 13, We Have a Solution

In certain circles, Gene Kranz is a living legend. After all, it's not everybody who has their vest enshrined in the Smithsonian. But it wasn't his clothing choices that earned him a place of honor. It was the fact that when three astronauts were trapped in a faulty spacecraft 250,000 miles from Earth, he and his team were able to come up with an actionable plan to get them home safe and sound. That plan didn't come out of nowhere, either. It came out of an eight-step process that he had put in place a few years earlier. You might find it will work just as well for your own workplace frustrations — especially when you're tempted to just go with your gut. Here it is:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Determine goals/objectives
  3. Generate an array of alternative solutions
  4. Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution
  5. Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action
  6. Plan the implementation
  7. Implement with full commitment
  8. Adapt as needed based on incoming data

There you have it. Simple, direct, and goal-oriented. There's one more thing to note about the process — it doesn't include a backup plan in case things go pear-shaped. Thinking back to that day, Apollo flight controller Jerry Bostick put it this way: "When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them." Yeah, that's where the phrase "Failure is not an option" comes from.

Mission Control Celebrates

Tough and Competent

It's not exactly a coincidence that the guy in charge of solving NASA's problems had such a rigorous problem-solving process. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, Kranz only implemented this method after the United States' first major space exploration disaster. Kranz was in charge of the Apollo 1 launch as well, and saw it end tragically as a fire swept through the command module and took the lives of three astronauts. After that happened, he knew things had to change.

The very next day, he addressed his team with a rousing speech that came to be known as "the Kranz dictum." It's far too long to quote in full, but it all boils down to two things: be tough, and be competent. "Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do ... Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect." It's a high standard to live by, but that's how you have to think when the final frontier is in your hands.

For more lessons learned from NASA's school of hard knocks, check out Gene Kranz's own "Failure Is Not an Option." The audiobook is free on Audible with a trial membership. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Unlucky Apollo 13

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 28, 2017