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Lessons from the Space Program: I&T Speaks to NASA Legend Gene Kranz

Most famous as flight director of the Apollo 13 mission, Gene Kranz played key roles in the space program from the Mercury missions to the lunar landings to the Space Shuttle era. On Richmond Events' CIO Forum (May 10-12) cruise out of New York Harbor, Insurance & Technology editor Anthony O'Donnell had the opportunity to ask Kranz what lessons the space program might have for insurance technology executives.

Most famous as flight director of the Apollo 13 mission, Gene Kranz played key roles in the space program from the Mercury program to the lunar landings to the Space Shuttle era. On Richmond Events' CIO Forum cruise (May 10-12) out of New York Harbor, during which Kranz was a keynote speaker, Insurance & Technology Editor Anthony O'Donnell had the opportunity to ask Kranz what lessons the space program might have for insurance technology executives.

I&T: Financial services technology executives are not holding people's lives in their hands, but the consequences of failure for them can also be great. What principles are key to their success?

Kranz: The first is to create a climate of values so that the people who work for them as well as the customers they serve recognize what their financial institution stands for, what service it intends to provide and, above all, that the clients' or customers' objectives are foremost. Those values will engender trust on the part of your team and your customers. The business of financial services has some similarities with space exploration, because risk is involved if you intend to provide a return on your investment. And at times you may think you understand the environment you act in, but unanticipated external influences might change your direction. When that happens, trust is most important.

I&T: What leadership characteristics does a technology officer need in order to build a good team?

Kranz: Leadership is the ability to focus the talent, the energy and the imagination of a group upon an objective. That depends not only on the leader's personal characteristics " which are key in inspiring people to follow " but the ability to articulate goals. The leader works with the people on his team to develop a set of options to achieve a goal, makes the team members partners in the undertaking and then finds the words to articulate the direction they must go. That ability for communications, both oral and written, is a key component of a leader.

I&T: What is the importance of morale to an organization, and how does one foster and maintain it?

Kranz: Morale comes from several sources. One is the enforcement of a consistent set of standards, such as the Foundations of Mission Control, which was basically a value statement for Mission Control [Editor's Note: See below.] Such a value statement provides a reference for every person in the organization. If every person is expected to measure up to the level expressed in the value statement, you then have the ability to build an elite organization capable of sustaining difficult times. A second source is intensive and rigorous training, and that training has to apply to everyone in the organization. In the 1990s I observed a program that had exhaustive organizational assessments, and they TQM'd [total quality management] us right down the line. But the only people who had ever attended the training were those at the lower levels. The higher-level people felt they already knew all there was to know. That went against the commonality with which an organization has to approach whatever objectives it sets. While going through training, people recognize who is not there, and if their leaders are not there, they will feel that the training is not important.

Success helps an awful lot in fostering morale, and that success has to be recognized both individually and collectively. And the leadership has to articulate the essence of that success. "Gee, we had a good year last year." But why is that? Well, because we provided a service to our customers, we're running on the line. That builds a feeling in the organization that it is a good place to work.

Also, when problems arise -- and not everything will go smoothly -- the leaders get out in front, accept responsibility for the problems and provide solutions. They assign responsibilities to start a recovery process, and they push on to success. And even when you don't succeed, you effectively debrief. We had several missions where we did not satisfy our objectives, and we had very intense debriefings.

I&T: In our industry there's a concern about using technology for technology's sake, or using technology as a solution when really it's an enabler. What are your thoughts about avoiding that?

Kranz: In our business we were always constrained by financial resources and limited time. And we were always constrained by the fact that we had to deliver 100 percent on-schedule on our scheduled commitments and objective commitments. Therefore, we looked at the level of technology that -- and I hate to use this term -- that would be guaranteed available. We never got into technology for technology's sake because we didn't have the resources to spend on it. We didn't have the time and we were unwilling to accept the risk that that possibly entailed.

I&T: Discrepancies between intentions and results can be the source of tension between business people and technology people, and also among technology professionals. Your old boss, Chris Kraft -- the space program's first flight director -- has spoken about difficulties he experienced as an engineer dealing with the expectations of theoretical scientists. What insights do you have into those difficulties?

Kranz: This same tension existed between operator and engineer. The engineers believed that they had designed the systems, the systems were expected to be performed within a specified range of parameters, and we'd always go to the engineers and say, "Well, what happens if it isn't? What options do we have?" And they'd always shut you down and say, "It's designed to operate that way, that's the way it's going to be." So one of the greatest difficulties that we had was to get the engineers to accept the fact that their systems may not perform as they were designed. And once you did that, we started communicating. But that was the first thing that you had to do: get the engineers to accept the fact that their systems may not perform as designed.

One thing that we did that the engineers didn't was what I would call system engineering. When I would look at an environmental system, I would not only see the functions it was intended to perform, I would see all of the supporting things that had to work in order to allow it to do its job. I look at the environmental system and I'd see the controls, the displays, I'd the instrumentation, I'd see the structural components, I'd see the electrical power generation components, I'd see the mechanical components. So basically when I looked at a system I had to look at the very big picture that surrounded that system. The engineer, by definition, doesn't do that. He needs an environmental system and he lays requirements on the power guy to produce him a certain level of energy, and a structural guy to support this device that he's built. But we couldn't work that way. Otherwise we'd have an organization in mission control that would be hundreds of people deep " you'd never be able to manage it.

I&T: In our industry it's often said that the business tends to "throw projects over the wall" and then end up disappointed with the results. How do you think companies ought to pursue tighter interaction to avoid such problems?

Kranz: I believe that in today's world, which is very complex, fast-moving, absolutely unforgiving, and demands results on an almost instantaneous fashion, the only solution to the problems you describe is a highly integrated team. That's the way I ran my teams in mission operations through the 1990s. In mission control I had instantly available to me every person I needed to make a short-term decision. I also had instantly available to me all of the design, the program, the entire management chain. Most people work today in a traditional hierarchical fashion where basically everything has to go up the chain of command to some level before it can then move horizontally into another organization. Unfortunately this takes time, it takes an awful lot of structure and it really is not responsive in the time frame that decisions have to be made today. So to answer you question, it's developing what I'd call a composite team, a team that has rapid access to all the skills necessary, whether they be financial or technical. Once you pull this team together, it starts to break barriers down. Now, even if you have this fast-moving composite strike force, you still need the hierarchical organization to build these people, to provide them the skills. But basically the hierarchical organization has to be responsible to the operating organization.

Foundations of Mission Control

To instill within ourselves these qualities essential for professional excellence:

Discipline: Being able to follow as well as lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.

Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.

Confidence: Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.

Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.

Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.

Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the ability of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all.

To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort.

[From "Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond," by Gene Kranz, Berkley Books, New York, 2000.]

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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