Problem-Solving Lessons From NASA

You can have all the luck and intuition in the world, but without extreme competence you'll be hard-pressed to make it to the moon and back again.

Gene Kranz, the steel-nerved flight director of the troubled Apollo 13 mission, is widely associated with the gritty epigram, "failure is not an option." In fact, Kranz—a breathtakingly effective leader who served as flight director for both the Gemini and Apollo programs during his 34-year tenure at NASA—is the source of a number of highly quotable reflections on leadership. Our current favorite? "Let's work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing."

Kranz’s words are the stuff of great leadership, and they point directly to a crucial element that is largely absent from today’s discussion of the subject: good old-fashioned, hard-earned, rock-solid competence.

As much as we like to ponder the importance of character, the mystery of charisma, and the utility of relationships, the inescapable fact is that truly great leadership requires solving the biggest problems.

Work the problem

When it comes to solving important problems, too often we go with our intuition, and as Kranz admonished, that only makes things worse. Real competence involves doing things thoughtfully and mindfully, rather than by hope, intuition, or guesswork.

In his remarkable "tough and competent" speech (also known as the "Kranz Dictum") following the deadly 1967 fire on the launch pad of the Apollo I, Kranz put it this way: "We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle."

A genius of operational procedure—his "go/no go" launch status check system remains in use—Kranz did what the best leaders do: he successfully overcame challenges via mindful, deliberative information processing and effective problem-solving processes.

Leaders must "work the problem" through proper and thorough procedures. Specifically, they should:

  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

Sound too much like a Management 101 textbook? Or too time-consuming? Here’s what Apollo Flight Controller Jerry Bostick had to say about how the mission control team coped with the cascade of unexpected challenges—the literal putting out of fires—that arose during the Apollo 13 mission:

"When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution."

Form Your A-Team

Bostick’s use of "we" brings us to another crucial element of leadership and problem solving: the inclusion of relevant, committed, and highly energized team members.

Of course, time constraints mean that not all problems can or should be tackled with all hands on deck. But when it comes to the important problems, the best leaders involve other people who possess useful and complementary skills, expertise, and information, as well as a darn good reason to care and an unwavering commitment to seeing things through to success.

Outstanding teammates don’t just add worthwhile opinions and insights; their involvement in rational solution-seeking procedures helps eliminate some of the bugaboos most commonly responsible for hampering wise decision-making.

Working well with others can help keep egos in check, expose cognitive biases, ensure that all relevant stakeholders are taken into account, and anticipate short- and long-term consequences of actions.

Communication is key

But how do you get your team—and your organization—jazzed about practicing such extreme competence? The classic approach—to communicate and try to persuade—is tempting but insufficient.

The key is what you communicate about. Great leaders talk to their teams, a lot, about the problems they consider most important, the necessity of strong process in tackling those problems, and how to persist and adapt as needed to the point of real results.

Finally, the best leaders spread the competence not only through ongoing dialogue about important issues, but also by demonstrating effective problem-solving processes. Showing the way can be augmented with training and development activities that can help turn good problem-solving process into a vital, sustainable, and powerful cultural asset for your team or firm. Because if it’s long-term success you’re after, sheer competence is the name of the game. Charisma may take you far, but it’ll hardly get you to the moon and back.

Thomas S. Bateman is a chaired professor and director of a multidisciplinary leadership minor at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.

Mary Summers Whittle is a business writer and staff at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.

[Image via Pixabay]

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3 Comments

  • Bill Burnett

    With the Afghan and Iraqi wars, the US Army has faced new more dangerous and more complex situations than in the past. The Red Team approach includes a set of new structured analytic techniques for dealing with complexity that the US Army borrowed from the CIA. It is part of what it calls the Army’s Red Team methodology. The Army “defines Red Teaming as a function to avoid groupthink, mirror imaging, cultural missteps, and tunnel vision in plans and operations. Red Teams help staffs avoid making poor assumptions and account for the complexity inherent in the Operational Environment.” This an other techniques are discussed in our book “Behave! How to get 100% of your workers fully engaged”.

  • Bill Burnett

    As a great example of problem solving there may be no better case than the example of Apollo 13. They not only had great leadership and expertise, but also a very highly motivated team and an environment where the solution experiments could be tested with immediate feedback. As heroic the crew of the space craft were, the team on the ground were spectacular.

    The eight steps outlined in the article represent an excellent approach. However, the one critical element that interferes with decision making is bias. Lots have been written about it including an article in McKinsey Quarterly. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/the_case_for_behavioral_strategy