There are many good moments in Ron Howard’s 1995 movie, Apollo 13. My favorite is a scene between Flight Controller Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris and Seymour ‘Sy’ Liebergot, played by Clint Howard. Sy was responsible for the electrical and environmental systems (EECOM, for short) onboard the Command Module. This scene takes place just after an explosion rocked the ship, but before we learn that all its main functions are being lost and that Apollo 13 won’t be going to the moon.S: Flight? G: Yeah, go, EECOM. S: Um, Flight, I recommend we, uh, shut down the reactant valves of the fuel cells. G: What the hell good is that gonna do? S: If that’s where the leak is, we can isolate it. We can isolate it there, and we can save what’s left in the tanks and we can run on the good cell. G: You close ’em, you can’t open ’em again. You can’t land on the moon with one healthy fuel cell. S: Gene, the Odyssey is dying. From my chair here, this is the last option. G: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, Sy.
I like this scene for quite a few reasons:
It’s a good case study of organizational behavior; management should base decisions on facts it has gathered from the bottom-up, not on political expedience. The decision to shut off the cells, though politically damaging for NASA, saved three lives and boosted the reputation of the mission control team.
As a lowly analyst, Sy may have felt that studying valve pressures did little to help the overall moon mission, but his diligent reading of his instruments helped him discover something the rest of mission control had overlooked. He understood that they would need to rethink how they used the fuel cells if they were going to save the crew. We generalists heckle specialists for getting too bogged down in the details, but we don’t know how the details can impact us. They do. That’s exactly why we need them. What we don’t know CAN hurt us!
Finally, it shows us why we should follow our gut feeling on subjects we’re familiar with.
There’s a lesson here for sales & marketing staff. Working on marketing initiatives, I’ve felt like Sy many times. I’ve collected metrics and watched them until I’ve developed a sixth sense for how to tackle a certain marketplace. Management then comes crashing in, demanding that I tell them why we’re not getting more/better/faster/cheaper results. They say things like “This upcoming quarter, we want to improve our results by (insert percentage here).” Of course, they have no clue as to how they will actually achieve it. At that moment, I’ve either chosen to shut up and accept their arbitrary goal, or I’ve worked up the courage to tell them the subtle changes to goals/tactics that it would take to hit their KPIs (key performance indicators). Now when these moments arrive, I always ask myself “what would Sy say?”