Sunday, September 14, 2008

Overcoming idea resistance#2: Apollo13 technique

How do you push your idea in a highly process oriented culture? Well, a lesson from Apollo13 story says, you don’t push it, you just shove it in! All you need a deep conviction as to what is “the right thing to do”.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Apollo13 through Tom Hank starrer Oscar winning movie with the same title. Apollo13 was brought back to earth in a miraculous manner after it was crippled due an explosion right after its launch on April 11, 1970. The explosion damaged its main engine (Service module). The crew used back-up engine from Lunar module as a “lifeboat” in space. What few of us know is how the “lifesaving” backup engine capability was built. Let’s look at the sequence of events from the eyes of our hero Ken Cox who was the Technical Manager for the Control System program (story from 4th Generation R&D: Managing knowledge, technology & innovation). The development work involved people from Rockwell, Grumman and MIT Instrumentation Lab.

Late 1967 (30 months before Apollo 13 launch): Ken discusses the scenario with MIT folks “We really ought to have a contingency mode for coming back from the moon if something happened and you could not fire the big command service module engine”

· Ken talks to his counterparts in the propulsion engineering design group, and they said, "Oh, no, we would never have an explosion like that. No, no, no. That's not a credible scenario."

· When Ken took it to Apollo Program Office (like any other Program Office) it asked, “What is the problem, and what is the probability?” Ken didn’t have, in his own words, foggiest idea what the probability was. So the Program Office said, “Well, but you haven’t proved yet that this is really needed.”

· Ken brings the issue with Apollo Software Control Board which was run by Chris Craft. Chris said, "Ken, I think that you've done good work here, but you haven't proven that you need it, and therefore your request to put this in the basic capability of the Apollo program is disapproved."

· Ken is crushed. He said to himself, “I don't give a damn whether I can prove it or not! It's the right thing to do!”

· As Ken is walking out of the door, Chris motions him to the other side of the room. He looked me right in the eye, and there was a twinkle in his eye, and he said "Put that mother in as soon as you can”

· In the next Software Control Board meeting, Ken says, “We have done this action, we have put it in the main line configuration control and if you turn this proposal down at this point, it will impact the program because you will have to take it out." And Chris had a twinkle in his eye, and he just said, "Well, if that's the case, I think we just ought to keep it in and accept the design.”

Which one do you think is more difficult to find? Conviction as deep as Ken's or people like Chris with twinkle in their eyes?

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