Lessons Learned from the Apollo Moon Mission

In my first article in this series, on how to leverage the innovation process to improve the customer experience, I laid out my four simplified steps to innovation:

  • Explore – understand customer needs, pain points and challenges at each step in the journey
  • Ideate – generate ideas to solve for those needs and pain points
  • Evaluate – identify the optimal ideas to invest in
  • Design – create and test prototypes of the new experience until it is ready for deployment.

However there is one additional element required to make the process work at its best.

That key ingredient is what I call a “culture of innovation” or in other words, an organizational culture that allows and embraces change.

Unfortunately it seems to be human nature to fear change.

Sometimes resisting change is a good thing. Tinkering with the tried and true methods of the past can lead to uncertain outcomes. And when everything is going smoothly, and the environment is stable, then a case can be made that it’s best to keep the status quo. This is how things generally were long ago.

Today, in 21st century business, change is taking place at a dizzying pace. And if tracking surveys or other research reveal that customers have challenges, then change must take place, otherwise those customer relationships will soon be in jeopardy.

Therefore, we must strive to create a culture of innovation within our organizations.

This means fostering an environment in which:

  • Change is embraced rather than feared
  • Alternative solutions are encouraged rather than dismissed
  • Employees feel they can openly share ideas rather than feel the need to restrain their creative thinking.

A Great Example of a Culture Innovation: The Apollo Moon Mission

My favorite example of a culture of innovation is drawn from Apollo 11.

It is fitting to recall the lessons learned from that seminal event in our history as this week is the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first steps on the moon.

America Once Faced a Customer Experience Challenge of Existential Proportions

America faced a terrific CX challenge in 1957 when the Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik. Blasting a satellite into orbit meant that a nuclear bomb could be delivered by the Soviets to any spot on Earth.

American citizens were suddenly scared.

America Develops a Game Changing Strategy

For several years America tried to play catch up in the new space race, but the Soviets put together a string of impressive feats including having the first man to orbit the Earth.

Winning the space race was viewed by America as critical to not only safeguarding its citizens, but also proving to the world the superiority of an open society and the capitalist system.

America needed a new strategy. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered it when he said these words before Congress:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

A Culture of Innovation Requires Clear and Focused Objectives from the Top of the Organization

I am a believer that all great innovation begins with a clear and focused objective statement. Kennedy’s straight forward proclamation is the finest example I have ever come across.

  • It was simple: Everyone could understand the mission.
  • It was inspirational: It re-framed the space race around the moon and sparked the nation’s imagination. Virtually everyone has looked at the moon at some time and wondered about it.
  • It was challenging, but achievable: America did not yet have the capability to conquer the goal (neither did the Soviets), but America was on the cusp of being able to develop the technology that could achieve it. And Kennedy had given the country a clear deadline, until the end of the decade, to do it.

A Culture of Innovation Requires the Articulation of a Vision

Kennedy did not just stop with his initial objective statement. 16 months later in a celebrated speech at Rice University’s football stadium he articulated the vision of what was to come:

“We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour.”

By providing America with an articulation of what was expected, Kennedy made it crystal clear for the hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, not to mention astronauts, what they had to work on achieving. By providing a clear vision, everyone could be on the same page.

A Culture of Innovation Requires Accepting “Wild” Ideas from Anyone in the Organization

At this point NASA had its orders for what it needed to do, but exactly how they would do it required gathering and vetting ideas.

Wernher von Braun was the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center that was responsible for building the rockets to go to the moon.

von Braun initially favored what was called the Direct Ascent method or the Earth Orbit Rendezvous method (EOR) for sending a spaceship to the moon. It was assumed that a big rocket would land on and take off from the moon in these scenarios. von Braun and his team were masters of constructing large rockets and perhaps they were fixated on this type of solution.

But an aeronautical engineer, John Houbolt, who was not even working at the Marshall Space Flight Center, developed a key insight.

Houbolt realized that it was not economical or safe to land a large rocket on the moon and take back off to the Earth.

As a result, Houbolt championed a radically different approach called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). In this outside-the-box idea, Houbolt conceived that a specialized lunar module, which separated from the Apollo command module while in lunar orbit, would only require a minimum amount of fuel to land and take off from the moon.

The lunar module did not need to be a giant rocket loaded with all the fuel to get back to Earth. Large amounts of extra fuel would have made landing and taking off from the moon much more difficult and dangerous.

The lunar module simply had to get off the moon and dock again with the command module, which was orbiting the moon. The command module would then fire its larger rockets to return to the Earth.

At first, the Marshall Space Flight Center leadership made the classic organizational mistake of not only dismissing the LOR idea, but actually ridiculing it. But after reviewing further information provided by Houbolt, von Braun, in a surprise decision, announced that LOR would be the method used for the mission.

This was a critical decision. Once it was made, it set in motion all the years of efforts focused on designing and developing the rockets, procedures and training around the LOR method for landing men on the moon and returning them safely to the Earth.

It is a great credit to von Braun and the NASA leadership team that they considered and evaluated a viewpoint that was contrary to their expectations for a solution.

This was a classic demonstration of open innovation and accepting ideas from outside the leadership team and even outside the organization that is a hallmark of a great culture of innovation.

Years later, Houbolt was invited to be inside the mission control room when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon on July 20, 1969.

It has been reported that immediately after the landing, von Braun turned to Houbolt and thanked him. It was a grand gesture. von Braun recognized that while his celebrated team had built the massive Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 from Earth, without the idea of the LOR method, that Houbolt had advocated, America almost certainly would not have achieved the goal of landing a man on the moon.

A Culture of Innovation Requires Enabling End Users to Have a Role in Design

Once the concept for how to get to the moon was developed, the spaceships had to be designed.

Organizations that exhibit a culture of innovation spend a lot of time empathizing with their customers and seeking their feedback.

In the design phase this is particularly important. Customers need to have an opportunity to test early prototypes so that changes can be made to improve the ultimate customer experience.

NASA allowed the spaceship users themselves to be involved in the design phase. In his great book about the Apollo 11 mission, “Carrying the Fire,” Mike Collins, the command module pilot, noted that astronauts participated directly and frequently in the design of the Apollo spacecraft.

Collins called this, “…one of the wisest decisions NASA made,” because it ensured that the astronauts’ perspective was taken into consideration.

As an example, Neil Armstrong reportedly laughed when shown two stools in the cockpit of the lunar module saying, “When am I going to have time to sit down?” The stools were taken out which helped save weight, as reducing every ounce was vital for blasting off from the moon.

Again, NASA demonstrated the organization had adopted a culture of innovation.

Creating a Culture of Innovation in Your Organization

If you are intent on improving your customers’ experience it is best if you first focus on creating a culture of innovation in your organization. By looking back 50 years to the great achievement of Apollo 11, you can glean some powerful lessons:

  • Establish clear and focused objectives
  • Create a vision of the intended customer experience towards which everyone can gravitate
  • Allow anyone in the organization to provide ideas for how to achieve the vision
  • Enable user feedback in the design of the solution