Mason Karrer

"Failure is not an Option!"

Blog Post created by Mason Karrer Employee on Nov 7, 2012



I'm fresh off the road from the 23rd annual Information Security Forum World Congress, held this year in Chicago! As many of you know already the ISF's Standard of Good Practice is a leading information security best practice framework that we're happy to feature as an authoritative source in Archer. The ISF is a member driven organization comprised of over 300 leading global companies including RSA. What you may not know about the ISF is they also host this fantastic annual event. Each year it's in a different city around the world and this year we were lucky to have it in the US, selfishly in my own time zone!


First and foremost, the keynotes this year were nothing short of awesome. Frank Abagnale gave an amazing account of his life and perhaps you'll see an upcoming blog about that too. But if you know anything about me by now you're undoubtedly aware of the soft spot I have for all things aerospace. So you can imagine how excited I was to see Gene Kranz, former NASA Flight Director give his amazing account of the early days of America's space program and the incredible story of Apollo 13. If you've ever seen Ron Howard's movie by the same name you'll remember Gene's character being portrayed by Ed Harris, complete with white vest and all.


Gene showed several pictures from that era as he illustrated key examples of the teamwork, leadership, and discipline the team demonstrated; and the goodwill from people around the world who pulled together to collectively will our astronauts back to safety. At one point he revealed a grainy picture of a simple procedure document which became one of the pivotal elements to crew survival. As if they didn't have enough to worry about, midway through their return in their battered spaceship, the crew encountered a major problem with their oxygen supply. Since their moonshot was scrubbed anyway, Mission Control had them utilize the Lunar Module as a temporary lifeboat to preserve the power needed for reentry to earth. As they solved one problem they unwittingly created another. All Apollo crews had three astronauts but only two landed on the moon. The third always remained behind in a lunar orbit to coordinate things when they reconnected. As such, the Lunar Module's life support system was designed to support two astronauts for a day and a half, not three astronauts for four days. This caused the CO2 levels to rise faster than the air filters could handle which posed a fatal risk to the crew. No problem, they'll just swap out a new filter from the other module, right? Nope. The filters were different shapes!


So the team on the ground quickly set about finding a workaround to solve the problem of literally fitting a square peg into a round hole. What resulted was a duct tape contraption that, to the uninitiated probably looked like a grade school science project.  But as the air started flowing and the CO2 levels dropped I assure you at that moment it was likely one of the most beautiful devices the crew had ever seen.


So there I am, jaw on the floor, as Gene Kranz is telling this story and displaying the actual written procedures for how to build this device. Remember, Mission Control couldn't just beam this new filter up to space, or even send them a picture! The crew had to listen to instructions for how to assemble it, under enormous stress, fatigue, and oxygen deprivation. So those instructions had to be clear and concise. Gene called our attention to the upper right corner of the page where they had incremented versions as they refined the document, scratching out the old version number and writing in a new one. Working round-the-clock on no sleep, the team on the ground and the crew went from major crisis to workable solution in a matter of hours and still produced versioned documentation by hand!


In that environment, documented procedures are just part of the deal. The process doesn't work without them so keeping the documentation squared away is baked into the protocol. It's not "extra work" they'll do if they have time left over. It's a core requirement, even in emergencies...especially in emergencies. It kind of puts things in perspective where today we have wonderful tools like Archer to help automate all of that; and leaves little excuse for not having a solid policy management program except that like most things, it ultimately comes down to leadership. After the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, Gene Kranz held a staff meeting to address the issue. In what would come to be known as the "Kranz Dictum," Gene very clearly stated that the Apollo 1 disaster was their fault. By prioritizing schedules and perceptions solid solutions and procedures, they allowed themselves to be pressured into overlooking issues in the hopes it would work out rather than pushing back. In short, they didn't do their job. Gene issued an edict that from that point forward his Flight Control team would live and be defined by two words, "Tough" and "Competent." They would always be accountable, always be prepared, and would never again compromise their responsibilities.


Imagine if during the Apollo 13 mission the engineers on the ground just started hollering ideas for the crew to try, rather than methodically working the problem first? Or better yet, what if the higher order expectations set by Gene and others were not in place right from the beginning? Remember in the movie when Gene's character yells "We've never lost an American in space and we're sure not going to on my watch! Failure is not an option!" And later when responding to criticism that Apollo 13 would be regarded as a disaster for NASA, Gene's character challenged back to his boss (and everybody in earshot) his disagreement that it would instead be their "finest hour." Although creative liberties were taken with some of these exchanges for the sake of the screenplay, they were done to portray something difficult to articulate otherwise. The notion of failure not being an option was ingrained in everything they did. It was cultural, and still is.


Whether at NASA or anywhere, that kind of attitude and leadership truly makes a difference, especially against long odds. The integrity to take an unpopular stand because it's the right thing to do can dramatically inspire an organization towards excellence. Strong leadership calms fears and gives people focus and clarity in uncertain situations. In the case of Apollo 13, the refusal to waiver or even entertain the notion failure, and instead demanding and accepting nothing less than excellence meant the difference between life and death for astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert.


Fortunately the stakes aren't quite that high in our daily lives but the lessons are no less true. Company leaders have a responsibility to set clear direction and tone at the top to support effective policies and procedures as a matter of standard business practice. Frighteningly, many do not. Those who do rise and embrace that challenge and responsibility are much better positioned to ensure the next time their organization faces an incident, they too can look back on their preparedness and ability to manage through the crisis as one of their "finest hours".


Thank you Gene Kranz...for everything.