In 1995, Hollywood released its movie homage — “Apollo 13” — to the US Space Program’s most daring space rescue.  One scene in particular has remained with me ever since I first experienced it in the theater.

As the crippled spacecraft’s crew battled long survival odds 205,000 miles above the earth, it suddenly became apparent to ground-based Mission Control that the spacecraft was rapidly running out of breathable air due to near toxic levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).  Mission Control scrambled to help find a solution.  The core problem was how to connect two incompatible parts to build an air filter; a contingency they had never remotely considered.

With time — measured in minutes — of the essence, a lead engineer quickly assembled a small team of engineers in a room and deposited several boxes of apparently un-related space items on a table in front of them.  “OK people listen up —  the lead tells his teamthe people upstairs have handed us this one and we have to come through.  We’ve got to find a way to make this — he holds up a square objectfit into the hole for thishe holds up a round objectusing nothing but thathe points to the gear on the table, representing the limits of what the spacecraft crew had to work with.   Lets get it organized and build a filter”

What I love about this scene was its simplicity and straight forwardness.  There was no lamenting their responsibility for — or the difficulty of — the task, no wasted discussion of the “whose responsible or how could this happen” variety, and no abstract speculation about how they could address the problem “if only they had this or that item”.  The group simply got straight to work and as we know from history, found a way to make a square peg fit into a round hole.

The more I thought about this movie scene, the more I became convinced that it contained a simple, three-part formula fit for a wide variety of management problems and situations.  I applied it myself many times subsequently, so I can tell you it does work.  It will not work for every problem a manager faces but it is worth considering especially for the tough ones.

THE RIGHT PEOPLE — Knowing who these people are in any given situation is one of the great skills of the best managers.  It is not a matter of blind intuition.  Rather it requires the ability to really get to know the talents, skills, experience, personality and temperament of one’s subordinates, colleagues, and the other people with whom one regularly works.  Really good managers endeavor to cultivate this ability, knowing it will pay off when it comes to making critical assignments and assembling just the right team for a very specific problem.

THE LEADER’S CONFIDENCE IN THE TEAM’S ABILITY TO SUCCEED — Do not underestimate this critical factor in empowering a team to accomplish the difficult.  The attitude of a team’s leader defines an outcome expectation that powerfully influences the task’s results.  And the attitude that has the greatest impact is CONFIDENCE; confidence that this is the right team composition and that the team will succeed.

The confidence I am referring to can not be faked.  It is not exhibited through arrogance or swagger, nor does it require a stirring pep talk.  It is a genuine — often quiet — expression of the leader’s demeanor, words, tone of voice, and body language.  It is easily read — consciously and sub-consciously —  by all team members and it inspires team confidence and maximum effort.

The power of the leader’s confidence resides in the overwhelming tendency of human beings to live up to the expectations placed upon them.  Thus when the leader conveys in some way his or her own skepticism about a successful outcome, any doubts team members might have will likely be magnified.

THE NEED FOR PERIMETERS THAT PROVIDE FOCUS AND LIMITS — Can you imagine the ideas a team of talented engineers would have generated for creating the required filter if they had not been limited to the items on the spacecraft?  It is an invitation to waste time and energy to approach a problem without somehow setting some limits on what is possible.  The tighter the focus, the more precise the perimeters concerning what is possible and impossible — on and off the table — the easier it is for a solution team to concentrate their efforts on the art of the possible.

Again, the formula does work.  Give it a try.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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