On the 50th anniversary of the safe return of Apollo 13, Andy Key, Director at Maskew Cordon, looks at the importance of responding effectively in order to survive when things don’t quite go to plan.

How would you feel if after coronavirus your business emerged stronger, fitter and more profitable? And how would you feel if it didn’t?

By now you’ve probably done what you needed to do to avert immediate disaster – furloughing staff, cost reductions, perhaps borrowing money or rescheduling debt…

But what next? How you approach the next phase of this crisis could well determine how you feel about it afterwards.

Coronavirus and its consequences have created a pivotal moment for many businesses. The degree to which this is an issue for you and your company is, on the face of it, just luck. Some sectors are gaining, others clearly losing.

Why on the face of it just luck?

How you think about the current situation and how you choose to respond to it isn’t luck. There’s usually something you can do to make things better. And that’s the same whether you’re looking at this as an opportunity or a threat.

NASA has an interesting and useful philosophy. Space is a hostile and dangerous environment with complex technology. That combination means that stuff goes wrong. When it does, astronauts are taught to “work the problem”, and to keep on “working the problem”, and to work all the other problems that arise along the way until it’s solved.

Today, Friday 17th April, marks the 50th anniversary of the safe return of Apollo 13. When an oxygen tank failed two days into the mission, the crew faced a survival situation, which started with the famous (and often misquoted) line “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

NASA and its astronauts “worked the problem” relentlessly until the crew returned safely, splashing down in the Pacific.

How is this relevant?

Resilience is fundamental. Believing that a solution can be found is the first step. With your head in the right place, you’re far better equipped to turn threat into opportunity. The second step is to take stock.

That’s what NASA and its team did in 1970. What is the exact situation? What are you trying to achieve? Well defined problems lead to breakthrough solutions. Accurately defining the problem is a critical step. Is the problem you’re trying to solve one of short-term survival, or will this situation lead to long-term change that requires different thinking? There are usually both positives and negatives. Things that could help and things that could hinder. Are you trying to solve the same customer problem you always have – but with a different solution? Or are you trying to solve new and different problems using your strengths and capabilities?

What are the positives? They can be strengths, resources, partnerships/JVs, opportunities, possibilities, intellectual property, your team. Stuff you can use that will make a difference.

Inevitably, there will also be negatives. Complicating factors that are or could make life more difficult. Currently that could be changing customer behaviour, restrictions imposed by lock-down, cashflow, the problems of remote working, furloughed team members or supply chain issues. Sometimes, the true nature of the situation, good and bad, is harder to see when you’re immersed in it – just as it was for the Apollo 13 crew.

In 1970, NASA had an identical spacecraft on the ground. Ken Mattingly, an astronaut trained for the mission but unable to go for medical reasons, and the ground team “worked the problem”. With the benefit of an external perspective, they used the resources available on the craft including duct tape and covers from flight manuals to fix the carbon dioxide cleaning system, enabling the crew to stay alive.

Pivotal moments are points when things could go either way – good or bad. In strategic terms it can also mean pivoting off in a different direction – and that’s all about choice:

  • What’s your over-arching goal/mission/purpose?
  • Where are you going to compete?
  • How are you going to create competitive advantage and win?
  • What capabilities do you need to do it?
  • What management systems are required?

Good businesses shouldn’t die in bad times. And changing times create opportunity in all markets.

You’ve worked hard to build the value in your business and if, after all this is over, you’d like to look back on it with a business that’s emerged even stronger, fitter and more profitable, what you do now is critical. We’re all facing a pivotal moment – what happens next largely depends on how we respond to it.

Maskew Cordon offer guidance and support through pivotal moments of change, crisis and opportunity. For more information, visit: maskewcordon.co.uk.

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