When Your Strategy Needs a Strategy
I was talking with a colleague recently, and we got on the topic of the 1995 movie, Apollo 13. There are a series of scenes in the film where Ed Harris’s character is diagramming a portion of the mission and indicates a “gap” with a dashed line, indicating the distance they need to make up through alternate means to bring the astronauts home in their damaged spacecraft.
At some point during the meeting, Loren Dean’s character interjects that the steps they are taking are too slow and something needs to be done to address the immediate problems facing the three returning astronauts. So, they go to work, trying different options until they find an arrangement of turning functions of the spacecraft on and off in a sequence that meets the criteria of keeping them alive until they reach Earth.
Turning Unforeseen Circumstances into Ingenuity
I have been thinking about that movie a lot lately as I have been working with Greater Des Moines (DSM) community members and organizations. A lot of what is currently happening is similar to what Jim Lovell and his crew were facing — challenging circumstances that emerged unexpectedly, a scarcity of resources and limited available options.
But one thing remained true about the situation and that was the ultimate goal was always to return to earth. That was the “true north” of the mission. I acknowledge that their original purpose was to visit the moon and all that would have entailed, but the end result would only deviate inasmuch as they would have artifacts and experiences to build from in a different way. They still would have returned to the earth. If they decided to visit the moon anyway, they would have most likely died.
The reason that mission was not considered a failure and is regarded in the way that it was is because of the ingenuity involved in achieving the ultimate result — three astronauts alive and back home — and that there were active forfeiture decisions (not landing on the moon) and acquisition decisions (maintaining enough resources to return to earth). Looking at the process behind this there is a lot to learn from this, even just in the context of the movie.
The Loren Dean character sitting in front of a voltmeter, watching and testing the sequence of things being powered up and used, the Gary Sinise character models out options in the simulator — they all seem like perfect analogs to what many of our organizations are going through right now as we test resources and capabilities, check to make sure our employees and staff are doing ok and think through processes. In many ways, we are all a version of the engineer sitting at the voltmeter, trying to put together a sequence that will get us safely home, taking stock of acquisitions (what we keep) and forfeitures (what we cannot/should not do right now).
Right now, our strategies need a strategy. We must continue to maintain and stick to the reason why our organizations exist — our own true north — in order to provide some stability and to remain resilient. Our organizations likely had a mission and vision before this and now we are in a situation where we need to test the pieces and parts of what we do to make sure that these remaining supporting parts of our strategy (acquisition choices) are essential and will help sustain us until we are able to bridge the gaps in what we do in this new and ever-changing set of circumstances.
As you each navigate the COVID-19 crisis, think of yourselves as engineers developing those procedures, making choices and building strategies to be adaptable to the circumstances. I think many organizations are struggling, like Ed Harris and his team did in that movie, to turn a dashed line into a solid one. Breaking things down into pieces and parts and trying different solutions — being flexible and responsive — is a sound strategy to find and leverage the essential components of what organizations need to not only survive, but create a sustainable short-term strategy that allows them to continue on and reach the goals that support their ultimate mission and vision.
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