Future Journeys: Lessons in Bold Innovation From Apollo 13

Size matters.

We have been exploring the unique challenges that large organizations face on their transformation journeys for some time now on the SU Blog. The size and complexity of large organizations can be both a blessing and a curse. Established organizations often have deep pockets and considerable domain expertise to support their transformation initiatives.

But the same gravitational pull that enables successful enterprises to attract investors, customers, and top talent also may slow an organization’s future growth. How can current success become a barrier to future success?

In a well-run organization with strong financials, the need for reinvention seems less urgent than for those that are facing competition from aggressive startups and adjacent industries. Yet, this period of ample resources and relative calm is the ideal time for those enterprises to define the frameworks and strategies that will enable them to leverage their size and scale to create momentum—rather than collapsing under their own weight. We have worked on large-scale reinventions in the best of times and the worst of times. The most successful engagements took place when there was time for leadership teams to completely understand and define future challenges and then surface the organization’s best thinking to move forward.

The learning curve: Apollo 11 vs. Apollo 13

In 2019, the 50th anniversary of the mission that first landed humans on the moon has been justifiably celebrated around the world. And while Apollo 11 certainly was a landmark achievement, the troubled—yet ultimately triumphant—Apollo 13 mission was perhaps even more instructive for students of innovation:

  • Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly was grounded shortly before launch because of his exposure to German Measles. Backup pilot Jack Swigert was named as Mattingly’s last-minute replacement.
  • The planned moon landing failed due to an explosion in the spacecraft’s oxygen tanks that badly damaged the command module.
  • Changing plans, the crew abandoned the damaged command module and moved to the lunar module, using is as a makeshift lifeboat for their return to Earth.
  • The crew also was forced to make improvised repairs to the lunar module’s carbon dioxide removal system and challenged further by power failures, loss of cabin heat, and a shortage of drinking water.
  • In a spectacular act of daring, the crew flew 137 nautical miles above the lunar surface, leveraging the moon’s gravity to slingshot the lunar module back to Earth.

This drama played out with the entire world watching and was later dramatized in the popular 1995 film starring Tom Hanks. This feat could not have been accomplished without the carefully orchestrated efforts of the three astronauts, along with the teams of scientists and engineers on Earth.

Apollo 13 Capsule

Timeless takeaways for innovators

Nearly a half-century has passed, but here are some innovation lessons from the mission’s safe return to Earth on April 17th, 1970.

Prepare to accelerate

Just as Apollo astronauts required tremendous acceleration to escape the Earth’s atmosphere and to return home, today’s innovation leaders must know how and when to accelerate. For example, let’s say you’re in finance, and there are three leading banks that are in close competition. The banks all face similar challenges in modernizing their services to meet current customer demands. They are of similar size, compete for similar customers, and operate in the same regulatory environment. These banks all have the same access to innovation resources and exponential technologies at their disposal.

Which one wins? The answer lies in the speed of execution. The bank that can execute the required changes in strategy, leadership, and innovation fastest is the one that will achieve and maintain a competitive advantage. The Apollo astronauts were chosen from the world’s most fearless and skillful pilots and supported by some of the finest scientists and engineers ever assembled. Similarly, your organization’s leadership should be capable of daring, quick decisions, and grace under pressure to move your organization to the future.

Maintain innovation momentum

In a previous post, we touched on the fact that innovative technologies are achieving global adoption at an unprecedented rate. In fact, we’re currently observing the slowest rate of change we’ll ever experience. Thus, momentum means more than keeping up—it’s about continued acceleration. One way to keep increasing your speed is through your people. Through continuous training and upskilling, today’s most successful enterprises can keep their teams engaged and performing on the leading edge.

Another path to rapid growth is to leverage your innovation ecosystem to create a network effect. Organizations like Netflix, Google, and Airbnb all add value as their networks add members. Your audience, and entire innovation ecosystem of partners and community members, can enable your organization to grow sustainably and allow you to maintain that speed. To achieve your organization’s mission of future growth, you’ll need to continually innovate to create breakthrough products and services.

“The processor on the Apollo 11 computer ran at .043 MHz. The latest iPhone processor runs at an estimated 2,490 MHz, offering 100,000 times more processing power.” —Graham Kendall

Harness current and future technologies 

Just as the Apollo astronauts and ground crew pushed the limits of their current technology, so must your organization. Using our historical knowledge and models such as Moore’s law, we can also estimate how the growth of exponential technologies may factor into our plans. Your iPhone has 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that powered the moon landing 50 years ago, which exemplifies an exponential growth curve.

It’s easy to see examples of exponential technologies in the process of remaking major industries. For example, AI-powered research and drug discovery are transforming the pharmaceutical industry before our eyes. While the speed and economy of bringing powerful new drugs to market may seem like a dream to healthcare practitioners, it can be a nightmare to pharma companies that have spent years and trillions of dollars to bring drugs to market through traditional processes. If you’re forecasting your own organization’s growth over a 25-year horizon, for example, you must make some assumptions about the advancement and impact of emerging and converging technologies during that time.

Leverage your environment

With Apollo 13’s moon landing mission scrubbed and few options remaining, it was decided that the spacecraft would attempt a dangerous maneuver that involved orbiting around the moon for a gravitational assist—the famous slingshot effect that enabled its return to Earth. Your own innovation journey may require you to do some creative thinking to leverage the gravitational force—the size and strength of your enterprise—to achieve innovation goals.

For example, large enterprises with many customers and transactions hold a huge advantage over their smaller counterparts because each customer, contact point, and transaction generates valuable data that enable further learning and insights. While developing and deploying a cutting-edge, AI-powered payment app may be impractical for a regional bank, the cost of developing that app will seem more reasonable to PayPal, a company with 286 million active users around the globe.

Innovation leaders must continually scan their environment for opportunities to accelerate growth. A good example may be to conduct research to learn if there’s a startup or competitor that’s ahead of you in creating a breakthrough product or solution. Your best option for speed and execution may be to partner, acquire licensing rights, or even purchase the company. Of course, this activity will look very different depending on your business and regulatory environment. If you’re working in the financial sector, automating and streamlining compliance operations can be a key competitive advantage, while the ability to enable customers to design and order custom clothing with a 1-2 day turnaround may be the ticket to success in retail.

Exponential Technology

Master the art of improvisation

The Apollo 13 lunar module was not designed to provide breathable air for three men to survive a return journey to Earth, so the mission team showed the astronauts how to improvise a crude adapter using parts onboard the spacecraft. This enabled them to utilize carbon-dioxide scrubbing canisters borrowed from the command module on their journey home—sort of an early version of a digital twin.

You’ll likely never have to act in dire circumstances like those of the Apollo 13 mission, but it’s critical for organizations to build the capabilities to work together as NASA did to overcome a series of life-or-death challenges. Your strategy and culture should include support and recognition for resiliency because your long-term success will depend on your ability to solve challenges that arise today and in the future.

Make continual course corrections

When the explosion occurred, Apollo 13 was heading on a path that would have caused the spacecraft to miss its landing on Earth by 2,500 miles. The astronauts were forced to fire the craft’s landing engines repeatedly to return to the proper trajectory. Today’s leaders know they must occasionally fire up the innovation engines for a temporary burn to accelerate and course-correct. We all must build systems that enable us to use the gravitational force of large organizations to build sustained momentum and discover new opportunities.

Leaders should develop the systems and capabilities to make many small course-corrections rather than huge shifts in strategy and tactics. Making small adjustments can enable you to evaluate outcomes and use the insights to improve your decision-making and execution going forward. That requires a strong data analytics capability to guide your use and speed your implementation of relevant exponential technologies.

Bring innovation down to Earth

Now it’s time to consider how to prepare your own organization to accelerate, make course corrections, and use environmental forces to slingshot past competitors. When working with enterprises that are building the capabilities to move from incremental improvements to 10x outcomes, we typically partner with clients in three major areas:

  • Strategy planning that provides navigation for a successful journey to the future
  • Leadership training that helps pilot an organization successfully towards future growth
  • Innovation sprints that streamline ideation and enable the development of breakthrough products

Speed of execution and continued momentum require your team and your entire community to be engaged with your mission. It’s not just a matter of applying enough propulsion to stay in orbit. Sometimes you need a means of escaping the gravitational pull of the status quo, inertia, or resistance in your organization. Depending on the size of the planet—or existing culture— from which you’re escaping, you may need to employ far more resources, take bolder steps, and accelerate more quickly than you imagined.