Trust and the Box

Last Friday I was in Historic Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center(jsc) listening to Milt Heflin, one of jsc’s Associate Directors, describe some of the history that happened there to a group of educators from across the country. Sitting at one of the consoles preserved from the Apollo days I was amazed as he unfolded story after story about the people who had worked in these seats decades ago.

One story stood out. It was the story of a young engineer who was sitting in mission control, monitoring the electrical systems on Apollo 12. We all know the story of Apollo 13, and this same engineer played a critical role in it’s safe return, but somehow the near disaster of Apollo 12 has faded from our collective memory.

As Milt told it about 30 seconds after Apollo 12 lifted of the pad on its way to the moon, the telemetry readings in mission control went haywire. They became garbled and non-sensical. In Mission Control the engineers sitting at their consoles stared down at screens uncertain what to do and unsure what had happened. capcom could still talk to the capsule so they knew it was still on it’s journey and the astronauts were alive. But the astronauts were surrounded by a cacophony of flashing warning lights and alarms.

No one knew what had happened, or what to do. After staring at the garbled screen in front of him the young eecom (Electrical, Environmental and COMmunication systems controller), John Aaron, turned from his console to Gerry Griffin, the Flight Director, and said “Flight, try sce to aux.” The flight director had no idea what he wanted. Neither did the astronaut serving as capcom (Capsule Communicator) who the Flight Director instructed to pass the message onto the three astronauts in the capsule. Both Gerry Griffin and the capcom asked John to repeat the message.

Once he repeated it there was no further discussion. The message made as much sense to the Commander, Pete Conrad, inside the capsule as it had to capcom and the Flight Director. When he heard “Try sce to aux” come through the radio he exclaimed “What… is that?” But the astronaut to his right, Alan Bean, knew what it was.

Bean had seen the switch during a training session a year before and remembered where it was located. He quickly reached up flipping the switch transitioning the Signal Conditioning Equipment (sce) from it’s normal power source to auxiliary power. Within seconds the consoles in mission control began to come back on line and fewer of the warning alarms and lights were flashing.

After checking his now functioning screen, John Aaron requested that the astronauts be instructed to reinstall the fuel cells. With that message passed on, the rest of the consoles came back on line and the capsule returned to normal.

Later review revealed that the capsule had been struck repeatedly by lightning damaging the electrical system shortly after launch. Because of the expertise, curiosity, and memories of Alan Bean and John Aaron, who had both seen something similar only one time before, the mission was able to proceed on it’s way to the Moon successfully.

Milt made a few more points before telling some more stories. He pointed out that the switch used to control the power source for the sce was used only on the pad for testing. It was never intended for use during a mission. That is why the Flight Director and the capcom, typically a flown astronaut, had never heard of it before. It took a supreme act of trust on the part of the Flight Director, capcom, and the mission commander for them to accept and relay the message so that Alan Bean could find the switch and save the mission.

That was Milt’s big point. There is an amazing level of trust that must exist in Mission Control for any mission to work. Everyone in Mission Control is an expert in their field, and sometimes the Flight Director must trust a young, less experienced, individual in order for a mission to be successful.

This is a powerful concept. I think it is also the key reason that we struggle to innovate. In business today we function based on a system of distrust.

There has been lots written by people like 37Signals about this phenomenon and how it creates an environment that makes it difficult for people to get things done. However, this problem goes deeper then just getting things done.

We are taught to trust our leaders completely, and that even when we don’t we should still do what they say without much discussion. They are the leader. They must know what they are doing. If this had been the only kind of trust in place that fateful day in mission control, Apollo 12 would have been aborted never arriving on the surface of the moon.

In mission control trust works the opposite way it does in the normal business office. Trust flows down the hierarchy as well as up. The Flight Director, while the most experienced person in the room, understands that each member of the team is a specialist in their specific area. They know exactly what is going on, and what needs to be done to accomplish the end goal. He has the overall picture but they understand the details and he trusts those details to them.

The same is true of the astronauts on the other end. They are each trained to perform certain aspects of the mission and while the Commander knows what those parts are he cannot perform them on his own. He does not have the specific training required to do them all.

This downward trust is the key to innovation. How many projects have been stunted by someone who is unwilling to say they don’t know the answer? Or someone who is unable to trust the people who really do know? Managers should provide the vision, the overall plan while their team members use their training to create innovative methods to achieve that vision.

This is difficult. This takes complete trust and lots of humility. It means leaders letting go of control. It means stepping back and letting your young eecom say “Flight, try sce to aux” and without discussion passing that message onto capcom, and then the astronauts inside. So that the one person who knows what it means can do it and save the mission. Trusting our teams is the only way for us to get outside the box and find truly innovative solutions.

More info on Apollo 12:

Published: 8 Oct 2010 | Tags: creativity , trust , management , innovation