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Teamwork in Apollo 13 crisis resonates today

Exercise shows how properly assigning roles and identifying skills brings success

Although experience is indispensable, it does not cosmically just happen. For the inexperienced, instruction is a requirement. Practice, practice, practice helps fresh and seasoned skills evolve into a regular rhythm.

I recently completed Apollo 13 training at work. Nope, my job isn’t at NASA, and I’m not trying to re-enact a “Stars Wars” saga (although that would be fun). I’m in the technology industry, and my instruction covered improving ways to work in teams.

We all know that amazing accomplishments come from teams that are well trained, have the necessary resources, place people with the right skills in the right roles and implement processes to achieve goals. The Apollo 13 crew was one of those teams.

On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 launched with three astronauts — Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert — on a mission to the moon. Fifty-six hours into the flight, the No. 2 oxygen tank in the service module exploded, causing the No. 1 tank to fail. Their quest instantaneously morphed into a formidable story of survival. Mission Control in Houston had to write and test completely new procedures — normally a three-month effort — in a mere three days. Aboard the ship, where oxygen was running out, a navigation issue had to be solved to provide a speedy and safe return home. Teamwork in every visceral sense was vital.

If you’ve seen the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” or remember the 1970 launch, you already know of the incredible outcome: Our men made it back to Earth unharmed. What my recent training taught me was how to recreate the kinds of crucial group dynamics that the Apollo 13 team employed — keeping in mind that failure is not an option.

Although most daily marine-oriented routines lack extreme elements, needing a team effort and getting a job done well are common themes for everyone.

My role during our training was to cover CAPCOM, or Capsule Communications. Along with the flight director, I relayed information between the astronauts and Mission Control. After each round of activity, we shared feedback on what went well and what was a bust. We wanted to perform well, but we didn’t, at least not at first.

We began with a strong dose of forming-storming-norming. Bruce Tuckman proposed this group development model in 1965, saying the three phases are necessary and inevitable for teams to grow, tackle challenges, develop solutions and deliver results. My “Apollo 13 crew” had been thrown into fresh roles without established processes or assessment of individual talents. With no mojo, our first round included frustration, confusion and chaos.

By the third and fourth cycles, though, we were finding our groove. The crew’s flight commander (our training facilitator) was firing off incidents and critical issues to CAPCOM (me) at a rapid clip, requiring immediate solutions from our sub-teams for life-sustaining items, such as navigation and running out of oxygen. Stress flowed across the room.

What did we learn? For teams and individuals to operate at peak performance, six “p” parameters must be included:

Positions: As training began, each person in Mission Control was given positions and accountabilities. Surprise — during the first round of instruction, a few people had difficulty functioning in their assigned roles.

Some tried to take over when they weren’t appointed a leadership position; others only modestly contributed because their role was unclear. We’ve all witnessed similar scenarios in our professional lives.

Positions have to be clearly defined and skills well-placed for assignments. Role encroachment and overlap causes friction and needs to be addressed. Once positions are effectively explained, teamwork has a better chance of actually working.

Proficiency: Early in the day when we were entrenching into allocated roles, we performed like rookies. Proficiency and experience? We had none. Like kids with a new telescope, at times we couldn’t see the stars because we had left on the rhetorical lens cap.

Experience must be present in every business unit to incorporate best practices. Without it, performance is severely hindered. NASA had massive proficiency in Mission Control, which was a pronounced component for prevailing over daunting probabilities.

Practice: Although experience is indispensable, it does not cosmically just happen. For the inexperienced, instruction is a requirement. Practice, practice, practice helps fresh and seasoned skills evolve into a regular rhythm.

This is particularly true with new members in a group, unfamiliar procedures and new responsibilities. Don’t rely on osmosis; train your team. The Apollo 13 team handled catastrophe with extreme professionalism and prowess because NASA, the crew and Mission Control had practiced vigorously for “what if” scenarios.

Prioritize: Whether the labor required is tiny or titanic, take the time to prioritize deadlines and business imperatives. Part of our program included monitoring the financial budget needed for crucial resources, safety and process items.

In addition, when issues hit critical mass for the crew, we implemented methods for better prioritizing what to do first. A rich reality emerged: Go slow to go fast. Like doctors who triage patients in an emergency room, we had to prioritize. Otherwise, we ran in all directions at warp speed, a mistake that inefficiently expended prized assets and precious minutes.

Provide information: Prioritization includes providing essential information. Keeping all members updated as to priorities, deadline constraints, goal alignment and the most effective processes lets people work faster. Passing along directions and updates requires structure and commonly understood terms. Information needs a consistent format, must be conveyed at regular intervals and should be easily understood.

Plan B: Space flight is dangerous, and even improbable possibilities must be identified to develop alternate plans. NASA had multiple redundancies engineered into the Apollo 13 mission, yet no one imagined a double oxygen tank failure. Additional redundancies, backup plans and immediate innovation were incorporated to save the astronauts.

The same is true in business and collaborative labor overall. Preparing for other possibilities and proactively producing plans B, C and D, particularly in operationally vital areas, are required parts of the playbook. Remedy weaknesses early to avoid enormous expense or failure later.

At the end of the day, how did we do? We brought our astronauts home safely! Background video of the actual landing in the ocean (maritime reference intended) helped complete the effect.

Most of us found the training exciting, exhausting and worthwhile. We also found that extensive communication, and professional appreciation and respect for individual contributions, were factors in staying focused and keeping our emotions under control.

Mary Elston

Mary Elston

When was the last time you provided training to help employees to produce work better together? If you can’t remember, think about doing it soon.

Apollo 13 is one option, with many others available. Make the investment to build better teams and you’ll find that they are capable of delivering admirable results. n

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps. Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.



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