Agile Team Building – Apollo 13

We were talking the other day in my new project team about various team building activities. It was mentioned that some people have not seen Office Space, so this is spurring an impromptu screening to alleviate this oversight. 🙂 We then talked about other team-building activities that our teams at Protegra have done. They ranged from innovation games, to magic eight balls to cowbells. Fascinating discussion as I was not aware of how each and every team found a different and valuable way to build their team.

I mentioned that the team building I wanted to try on the next project was a movie that inspired me on leadership, team work, and problem solving. That movie was Apollo 13. Fantastic acting and storytelling, but I was enthralled of the enormity of the problems and how they solved them. Now to be fair, there are some aspects of the problem solving that wasn’t Agile. (Such as being overly directional and Smoking. Did everyone smoke back then?)

But there are five lessons I take away from that movie than can inspire any team:

1) Manage and Lead by end state

Throughout the movie after the accident happened, the problems were always presented to the team in the form of end-state objectives. We need to get those Astronauts home safe and sound. It was up to the team to determine exactly how to do that. It wasn’t about telling them what tasks to do. It was about stating the objective and letting them use their expertise.

But Flight Director Gene Kranz was always there to guide the discussion if they started to digress on what if scenarios and things outside of their control. Very aligned with Agile to empower your team to solve the problem and having the Project Manager just guide the process.

“Let’s work the problem people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing”

2) Have your client co-located!

Boy, bet you didn’t see that one coming! I think the major success factor was they had Ken Mattingly to assist them in testing how they could power up the Command Module successfully. (Ken Mattingly was the Astronaut that did not fly due to a suspected case of measles) Classic example of having a client co-located. Ken Mattingly was a pilot that knew all the requirements to fly that spacecraft home and the conditions they were under. And in a true moment of genius he refused to use any item that they themselves did not have on board. He even requested that the environment in the simulation Command Module set to the exact light and temperature they were encountering on board. This was critical to ensure that his solution was a solution that would hold up. Without this co-located client insisting to operate in the true working conditions, I’m not sure a solution would have been found. It also raises an interesting point that your co-located client needs to be a decision-maker, expert in the business domain, and an expert in how technology will be used on the front line.

3) Create an atmosphere of safety to allow people to contribute

Although Gene Kranz (Played by Ed Harris) was a strong cup of coffee, the environment they operated in was still one where everyone could offer their opinion and challenge opinions. Good teams find a way to create and maintain this atmosphere so that ideas are cultivated and grow. The sessions they had to solve the problems had almost everyone speaking up and offering ideas.

4) Care about the success of the Project. Take it personally

Gene Kranz had the following quote when asked about the possibility of losing Astronauts by the media:

“We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”

This quote has always stuck with me. Although some may say it is easier to be passionate in a situation where lives are at stake, I always find the best teams have found a way to have their team members genuinely care about the success of the team AND the success of the client and take it personally. This care and concern needs to be encouraged on projects and although all team members need to nurture this, it sometimes falls on a couple of team members set an example. These do not need to be your leaders on the project. In fact it is better if they are not people in the leadership roles.

5) Lead by Attitude

All through the movie Gene Kranz was unwavering in his confidence to the team even though I am sure he had internal doubts. This allowed everyone to have confidence in what they were doing and just ‘work the problem.’ Without this confidence, valuable effort may have been spent elsewhere on things that didn’t help to solve the problem. I think one of the most valuable things a leader can do is to lead by attitude and ensure the confidence of the team is high.

Check the movie out if you haven’t seen it…


Author: Terry Bunio

Terry Bunio is passionate about his work as the Manager of the Project Management Office at the University of Manitoba. Terry oversees the governance on Information Technology projects to make sure the most important projects are being worked on in a consistent and effective way. Terry also provides leadership on the customized Project Methodology that is followed. The Project Methodology is a equal mix of Prince2, Agile, Traditional, and Business Value. Terry strives to bring Brutal Visibility, Eliminating Information islands, Right Sizing Documentation, Promoting Collaboration and Role-Based Non-Consensus, and short Feedback Loops to Minimize Inventory to the Agile Project Management Office. As a fan of pragmatic Agile, Terry always tries to determine if we can deliver value as soon as possible through iterations. As a practical Project Manager, Terry is known to challenge assumptions and strive to strike the balance between the theoretical and real world approaches for both Traditional and Agile approaches. Terry is a fan of AWE (Agile With Estimates), the Green Bay Packers, Winnipeg Jets, and asking why?

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