4 lessons entrepreneurs can learn about problem-solving from the NASA engineers who landed Apollo 13

Apollo 13
Apollo 13 astronauts treading water as they await their recovery helicopter in 1970.

  • Entrepreneurs can grow their problem-solving skills by emulating the tactics used by the Apollo 13 NASA engineers.
  • Avoid panicking, and take a step back to assess and understand the situation or problem at hand.
  • Weigh each potential solution carefully, but once you’ve made a choice, commit and don’t second-guess your decision. 
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Entrepreneurs are inherently problem-solvers. After all, we start our businesses because we recognize a need that needs to be filled. Take me, for instance: Part of my previous job at an internet media company was to create tools for editors to build forms, surveys, and polls. The problem was that at the time, the form-building landscape offered few good options. I decided to change that, and my company, JotForm, was born. 

But in the course of solving big-picture problems, smaller ones are constantly springing up and threatening to derail us. Some days, it feels like there are hundreds of fires that need to be put out before I’ve even finished my coffee. 

On those days, I like to think of an anecdote from Jerry C. Bostick, the flight dynamics officer for the Apollo 13 mission. More than two decades after the spacecraft was safely brought back to Earth after near-disaster, screenwriters Al Reinert and Bill Broyles were interviewing Bostick for the script that would become the film “Apollo 13.” One of their questions was, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?”  

Bostick’s answer? No. 

“When bad things happened we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them,” he said. 

If ever there was a situation when panic would be warranted, the Apollo 13 mission was one of them. But panic wouldn’t have helped Mission Control then, and it won’t help you, either. 

Work the problem

One of NASA‘s most renowned problem solvers was flight director Gene Kranz, who oversaw both the Gemini and Apollo programs during his 34-year career. While trying to figure out how to rescue the three astronauts whose lives were on the line on Apollo 13, he said to his staff, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” 

Kranz’s “work the problem” mantra is still used by the agency today. Astronaut Chris Hadfield explained the process in his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth,” describing it as “NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen:”

“When we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off – maybe the Russians couldn’t hear it in their module – while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste.”

University of Virginia Professor Thomas S. Bateman laid out “working the problem” in eight steps:

  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

This calm, rational approach to problem-solving works for astronauts and entrepreneurs alike. No matter what you’re dealing with, take a step back, understand the problem, and descend each decision tree until you find a solution. 

Be adaptable 

It might turn out that your original vision isn’t the one that ends up being realized. Or maybe you successfully launched one product, but changing technology forces you to reimagine it a few years down the line. That’s okay. Successful entrepreneurs know that change is inevitable, and if they want to survive in the long term, they’ll have to adapt. 

Nokia, for example, began as a paper company before following consumer demand and transitioning to rubber tires and galoshes. In the 1960s, it began making military equipment for Finland’s army, including gas masks and radio service phones, among other things. It eventually rose to prominence as the most successful cell phone manufacturer on Earth between 1998 and 2012. Even though it was eventually crushed by Apple after the release of the iPhone, Nokia lasted as long as it did thanks to its agility. 

Ask “why?”

Asking “why?” over and over again might make you feel less like a CEO and more like your toddler. But the truth is that there’s a lot we can gain from having an open, inquisitive mindset. Entrepreneur Michelle MacDonald suggests asking “Why?” five times to get to the root of any problem. 

“Many times when a problem arises, we jump to the first thought about why that problem is occurring, and then focus on a solution to fix that,” she said. “This is like putting an adhesive bandage over a hose and expecting it to hold.”

Say you find yourself drowning in work because you keep putting off tasks. Your five whys might go something like this: 

  1. Why am I constantly stressed? Because I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. 
  2. Why don’t I have enough time? Because I often procrastinate. 
  3. Why do I procrastinate? Because I don’t particularly enjoy some of the tasks I have to do. 
  4. Why don’t I enjoy them? Because they’re not a good use of my time, and someone else can easily do them. 
  5. Why isn’t someone else doing them? Because I haven’t delegated them out. 

Doing this will help you treat the actual problem, not just its symptoms, and keep you from trying to resolve the same thing over and over again. 

Positive thinking

Bostick’s answer about Mission Control’s refusal to panic spawned one of the most iconic lines of all time: “Failure is not an option.” Though that exact phrasing is an invention of the “Apollo 13” writers, the sentiment was accurate.

Negative thinking undermines the brain’s ability to think broadly and creatively, because fear and stress obscure options. Of course, you’re going to be stressed if, say, you lose a major client or there’s a freak explosion aboard your space craft. But those who cultivate positivity tend to be more resilient to such shocks, said Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of “Positivity.” 

One report co-written by Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions create a sort of buffer that helps people overcome setbacks. In fact, positive emotions were shown to help businesspeople negotiate better, improve decision-making and drive high-performance behavior. 

“Positive emotions expand awareness and attention,” Fredrickson said – critical attributes for anyone trying to solve a problem. “When you’re able to take in more information, the peripheral vision field is expanded. You’re able to connect the dots to the bigger picture. Instead of remembering just the most central event, you remember that and the peripheral aspects, too.”

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