One evening a couple of months ago during crunch time for production of The Culture of Collaboration book, I flipped on the TV and found the movie Apollo 13. It had been eleven years since I first saw the film. Gene Kranz, the flight director with a trademark crew cut played by Ed Harris in the movie, was kind enough to review the manuscript for The Culture of Collaboration and provide a generous back-cover quote. Gene’s book, Failure is Not an Option, is an excellent account of the Apollo 13 story and his years at N.A.S.A.
The drama of the film reminded me what an excellent example Apollo 13 is of collaboration, particularly because geographically-dispersed people worked together in real time to achieve a common goal and create value. The value they created was saving the lives of astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise. This was April of 1970, decades before videoconferencing, instant messaging, application sharing and other collaborative tools were in common use. Collaborating in real time at a distance was relatively new territory.
If you’ve forgotten the details…nearly fifty-six hours into the launch, an oxygen tank explodes causing the spacecraft to lose oxygen and electricity. Carbon dioxide from the crew’s breathing begins poisoning the cabin atmosphere. On the ground and in the spacecraft, crew members improvise a maintenance solution. They use items—including cardboard, a plastic bag, a sock and a hose—that are available in both locations to create a makeshift adapter to convert the main module’s air scrubber for use on the lunar module. The astronauts would use the lunar module as a lifeboat for their safe return to Earth.
There was no time to reflect, no opportunity to table decisions for another day. Nor was there any time to run decisions “up the flag pole.” Collaboration occurred spontaneously. Regardless of their role or rank, people participated in the solution. The Apollo 13 team embraced a culture that encouraged collaboration. Today many organizations seeking to create value from collaboration can learn something from the story of Apollo 13. With the Culture of Collaboration in place, people achieve the seemingly impossible and create awesome value.