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Could you get someone on to the moon?

It is now almost 50 years since we landed a man on the moon. Imagine that this was your responsibility. How would you go about ensuring its success? Is there any difference between the success of landing someone on the moon and your business operation? The scale of the operation will be very different, the costs will be very different but the principles of success are the same.

I have been reminding myself of these principles by reading a series of articles from the March 1970 issue of Astronautics and Aeronautics. It is entitled "What made Apollo a success?". Sticking with the astronautical metaphors, “there is nothing new under the sun”, there is much that made the Apollo 11 mission a success that is useful to us in business today.

At a high level the Apollo team followed all the things that we should do today – hire the best people, delegate authority, take calculated risks and have moral courage. These are all important principles and they are mentioned frequently on this website.

What interested me in the articles was the importance of detailed planning. In business we can be impatient for success, so much so that we charge ahead and "just do it". It is appealing for gung ho managers to swashbuckle their way forward, supported by a lot of shouting and hollering. This management approach would not have served Apollo 11 well. When there is much at risk, a careful and planned approach is required.

An indication of the framework for success can be gleaned from the titles in the "What made Apollo a success?" series of articles. Here are a selection with comments on their relevance to us in our businesses:

  • Design principles stressing simplicity – this article is a great reminder that although there will be much detail that is complicated, wherever possible it is necessary to keep things simple (stupid).

  • Testing to ensure mission success – here we learn about tools that allow us to minimise risk – important in business as well as in space flight. We can use market research, test markets, and feedback loops to ensure that we re-engineer things if they are going wrong.

  • Apollo crew procedures, simulation and flight planning – this is an article that emphasises the importance of training. There is nothing like repetitive training to ensure that everybody knows what they are doing, especially in difficult situations.

  • Flexible yet disciplined mission planning – we learn in this article the importance of flexible and disciplined planning. Apollo 11 paid great attention to everybody's views. It was a very flat organisation that listened and changed if someone had a good idea.

  • History of environmental acceptance test failures – there is so much we can learn from the past and Apollo 11 kept going back to previous missions to find out things that they must avoid.

So, could you get someone on the moon? If this is your responsibility I hope you consider that the “someone” could be female because you will need a space suit that fits (if this doesn't strike a chord, check out the internet on the 26th March 2019). Planning was the key to the success of Apollo 11 and it is planning that should be constantly in our minds in our businesses today. I have distilled the Apollo planning frameworks in the diagram below in the hope they can be useful in managing our terrestrial businesses:

Apollo 11 frameworks for success and their relevance to businesses

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