Handling crisis and change: Lessons from Apollo 13

Written by: Jez Bennett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Handling crisis and significant change can be incredibly stressful and typically happens in stages. Drawing on change-management theory and the infamous Apollo 13 mission, Jez Bennett looks at how we might handle the coronavirus emergency

During my permitted “once a day” exercise/dog walk, I have been enjoying listening to the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast, written by Kevin Fong and Andrew Luck-Baker and presented by Kevin Fong.

The current (second) series describes the Apollo 13 mission, in which the astronauts and their mission control team battled to cope with the catastrophic aftermath of an explosion in a fuel cell which ended their hopes of a lunar landing and gave them a very slim chance of returning home safely.

Apollo is a timely focus in the current climate. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of light, knowledge, music, poetry and healing. Among other qualities, he is strongly associated with the health and education of children.

One headteacher I work with closely described the Covid-19 crisis as our “Apollo 13” moment, and this Easter weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission. There is a sense in which we are developing solutions as we go along, but might we also learn from Apollo in order to cope with the changes and challenges that we are currently facing, and so that we might improve the quality of the education we provide in the long term?

The process of change, whether externally or internally determined, often follows a similar pattern. In 1969, psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the study of death and dying, identified five stages of grief experienced that she had observed in terminally ill patients – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Since then, these five stages have become a favoured model in change-management theory and they appear in many different versions today. When it comes to crisis and change management, the stages are based around our reactions to change and how they affect our performance in crisis situations. When considering how we handle the current coronavirus crisis, we might interpret these stages into three distinct sections, as shown below.

  1. Shock and denial. Performance begins to suffer.
  2. Anger and frustration. Performance dips further.
  3. Experimentation and implementation. Performance improves.

It is instructional to notice how the Apollo 13 team went through these phases too.

Stage 1: “We’ve got a problem”

The first stage is typified by shock and denial. When the explosion happened on Apollo 13, mission control’s initial response was one of denial. They assumed they must have an instrumentation error. As the severity of the situation became clear, denial led to disbelief. Flight controller Sy Liebergot stated he could not believe that a titanium oxygen tank had exploded: “You know you get the cold feeling in the pit of your stomach, like, this is really bad – but you can’t get up and go home. This was not an option.”

Moving through this stage requires information with clear, direct communication. People want answers to their concerns, but these need to be carefully managed.

On an Apollo mission, all communication with the spacecraft was through one dedicated colleague, known as CAPCOM. This would be a trained astronaut who might envisage the situation the crew found themselves in. This single channel ensured that communication was timely, clear and specific. CAPCOM could also ensure that the messages were positive and proactive. For example, rather than the frank analysis provided by one flight controller, CAPCOM communicated: “We’ve got lots and lots of people working on this. We’ll get you some dope as soon as we have it and you’ll be the first ones to know.”

Stage 2: “Is there anything we can trust?”

In the second stage, anger and frustration resulting from the situation are often prevalent. The reality becomes clear, and may lead to resentment, depression and fear.

“What do you think we’ve got in the spacecraft that’s good?” During the Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz realised that he needed to stop analysing the problem and start identifying the things he knew were working well.

Moving through this phase requires clear planning, support and encouragement. This planning helps avoid a chaotic response that might otherwise result at a time of low productivity. It can also require time, particularly in a large organisation, as members of staff may move along the change curve at different rates.

Leaders need to anticipate the change and provide the mechanisms for others to move along the change curve at appropriate rates. As Kevin Fong writes: “Keeping control of your team in the face of something so chaotic is tough. Without proper discipline things will disintegrate. This is the genius of Kranz’s leadership. He finds a way to force his flight controllers to stop, reset their approach and start again from fresh.”

Stage 3: “Start handing over”

Fong also describes how Kranz had the discipline to relinquish control to the incoming team at mission control, rather than be tempted to make all the decisions himself despite the pressures and responsibility, recalling Kranz’s words: “A fresh team is probably going to be thinking clearer. The rest of us can continue working in support of that new team.”

Characteristics of the third and final stage of change leadership are acceptance, exploration and experimentation. Carefully led and managed, these result in integration and improvement. Initially it is important to capitalise on the ideas of the team through encouraging creative thinking.

Glynn Lunny, who replaced Kranz part way through the crisis, was clear that he needed to ask his flight controllers for their recommendations, while remaining calm and taking responsibility for the external pressures of time. Fong states: “Survival depends on an option which is not in the flight manual. This is as close to a leap of faith as NASA will ever make. Mission operations are supposed to run on carefully prepared checklists with well-rehearsed procedures. Improvisation is something to be wary of.”

Schools are also closely associated with procedures and dislike improvisation. At a time of crisis, moving through this stage requires both training and the making of decisions with the recognition that there may be no precedent for required actions.

Training helps get the best out of everyone and may take time. Having explored a variety of options, at this stage, decision-making needs to be clear and well communicated.

Back to normality

The original Apollo 13 flight crew included the astronaut Ken Mattingly. During training all crew members had been exposed to the rubella virus through a fellow astronaut. Mattingly was the only one not to be immune from the disease, and was forced to withdraw from the mission.

As the emergency unfolded, Mattingly found himself called upon to try to develop a procedure for ensuring the safe return of his fellow astronauts through experimentation in the simulator. His expertise proved invaluable – you might say that he undertook extreme home working!

Where do you think you are currently on the change leadership curve? Where are the members of your team? What approach to you need to take to ensure that, following this crisis period, our practice and procedures are stronger and more effective than before? Which of the god Apollo’s qualities do you most need now?

And whatever your situation over the next few weeks, If you find yourself with some spare time and are looking for a great family movie, you could do worse than Apollo 13.

  • Jez Bennett is principal of the Leadership and Training Centre, which is part of the 5 Dimensions Trust based in Milton Keynes. The centre is based at Shenley Brook End School.

Further information

The quotations in this article have been taken from BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast by Kevin Fong and Andrew Luck-Bakerby (February 2020). Visit www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2


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