Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated with all things related to outer space. It is with awe and wonder that I continue to look at the stars and think about the amazing answers that await us as we continue to push the boundaries of our own understanding of the universe. To that, if you ask anyone to name the top 10 achievements in the past century, putting an astronaut on the moon will undoubtedly be on that list - if it isn't already #1.
I thought about this recently as I was watching Apollo 13, the movie that chronicles that ill-fated mission to the moon as part of the Apollo program. For those that are not familiar with the story [Spoiler Alert], a damaged wire caused a fire in an oxygen tank which ultimately forced the astronauts to abandon their plans to land on the moon and instead focus on getting home safe - which was hampered by a myriad of other related issues. Ultimately, the astronauts and their supporting team at NASA overcame these issues and I came to the realization that there were a great many lessons one could take from this story - especially as it pertains to analytics. For instance:
- They accomplished this extraordinary feat of science with very limited tools by today's standards
- Despite all the challenges, they seemed to have a contingency plan ready
- Everyone seemed to have a very strong cross-functional working knowledge
- The collective team was extremely motivated towards achieving a single goal (i.e. getting the astronauts back alive)
Now most of us are not faced with life or death scenarios at work, but I thought I could take the following lessons from the Apollo 13 program and see how we can apply them in my day to day dealings in the analytics world.
Lesson 1 - Tools Are Overrated…Experience is Not
One of the most impactful scenes in this movie centers around the moment when the NASA team needs to calculate the trajectory required for successful reentry. In this scene, you have dozens of engineers, scientists, and even the astronauts themselves, working through calculations using nothing more than pencils and slide rules. Given the dire situation and the importance of the outcome, it was very telling that everyone used a very basic tool set to make what was literally a lifesaving decision. However, it was critical that they understood the very complex science and math necessary to make that decision. Now this isn't to say that NASA didn't use computers. In fact, they had access to some of the most powerful computers available at that time. Keep in mind, however, that the combined computing power available to them was only a fraction of the computing power available from our everyday smartphones. Nevertheless, these rudimentary tools (by today's standards) still enabled them to accomplish monumental things because everyone had relevant experience.
Lesson 2 - Be Prepared to Adapt Based on New Information
When thinking about the myriad of problems faced on the Apollo 13 mission (and the incalculable number of issues any of these missions could have faced), it was amazing to me that there were at least workable plans ready to deal with the various situations. Certainly, the NASA team had every intention of the mission being successful, but they must have spent countless hours thinking about what could go wrong. Therefore, they were able to very quickly change course (figuratively and literally) as new problems arose. No matter what you think beforehand regarding a particular problem, you are almost certainly wrong in some area (if not completely wrong altogether). Have a plan if your solution doesn't work and be prepared to quickly try something else as you learn more information. You may have built a solution with a specific intention in mind, but you should also be ready to adjust as you learn new information.
Solving the problem requires knowledge about the specific business, its challenges, its opportunities, and how it works today.