Apollo 13 v COVID-19 – Businesses can learn and adapt from the experience

Richard McNeilly

Richard McNeilly, managing partner of Dains Accountants, reflects on how mission control and the crew of Apollo 13 handled a crisis and how we can adapt their learnings to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

50 years ago today, James A Lovell, John L Swigert and Fred W Haise, the astronauts of Apollo 13 returned to earth, following one of the most dramatic incidents in recent history.

How the astronauts and their land-based team dealt with crisis was incredible and out of adversity came a triumph. So, what can we learn as we adapt to the COVID-19 crisis?

Notwithstanding the skill and ingenuity of everyone involved, the positive conclusion could only be reached through a systematic approach to the crisis and I see similarities with the way businesses can approach the Covid-19 crisis.

Initial/Fire-fighting Stage

The Apollo 13 crew adapted quickly to the shock that they were losing pressure and complete engine failure was imminent. Mission control quickly took steps to;

  • Analyse the cause of the problem
  • Communicate internally
  • Communicate externally (with the media and with the crew)
  • Fix the problem, based on years of experience and impeccable training

Business owners have adapted to the Covid-19 crisis by;

  • Analysing short term business needs
  • Communicating with staff, customers and suppliers
  • Taking steps to fix the problem, using experience, but also new tools such as HMRC Time to pay scheme and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

Despite the undoubted ability of everyone involved in the Apollo 13 mission the position remained critical after the initial fire-fighting stage and my fear for businesses is that they are in the same position.

Power Down

Lovell, Swigert and Haise were instructed to move into a 2-man lunar module and took every step necessary to save energy in order to power the command module and return to Earth. Along the way, the crew suffered damp and cold conditions, surviving on minimal water and food rations.

It was their own carbon dioxide emissions however that nearly killed them but once again, the experience and creativity of the land-based support team enabled them to survive through the manufacture of an improvised C02 scrubber. The device was held together with duct tape and mission control explained every step of manufacture to the crew, who followed instructions to the letter.

Many businesses find themselves in a ‘power down’ phase and the ability to adapt and think forward will separate the winners from the losers, as harsh as that may seem.

Businesses must adapt now to save their lifeblood – cash. They must also take steps to properly understand what they need to enable them to metaphorically make the journey home. I’m concerned – I see and hear too many businesses bemoaning the fact that they can’t access cash. But do the owners really know how much they need? Have they demonstrated that they can recover in a coherent financial model or are they taking a finger in the air approach? To do the latter would have led to the deaths of the Apollo 13 crew but instead the team worked tirelessly to deliver what at times must have seemed impossible. But I can’t stress enough that it wasn’t simply the crew taking decisions, it was all stakeholders and in our current crisis, I implore business owners to take advice.

With many businesses furloughing staff and utilising staff working from home, it is also important that management (it’s a bit twee to call business owners mission control) maintain morale and ensure the well-being of all staff. Help staff to avoid cabin-fever and create social contact in new ways, wherever possible. Communicate a sense of hope and direction – staff want to know there is a plan and there can be little harm in sharing the plan in most businesses.

Creative thinking may not be absolutely necessary to survive but it might help your business really kick on in the future. Create the forum and imagine the impossible, it might be surprising who steps up with some great ideas. In the Apollo 13 mission many of the critical ideas came from members of the team, 20 or 30 years junior to their line managers, why should it be any different in business?

Return to Earth

Long before the command module broke through the earth’s atmosphere, the crew and mission control had plotted a path and crucially took a decision to re-route, testing the strength of the lunar module to its’ limits.

We may be some way off a return to normal in business terms but there is no reason not to plan. Operationally, it may not make sense to try and return to 100% normal on day one and in many cases, I suggest that the return to normal will be phased.

During the Apollo 13 mission there was a heart stopping six minute communication blackout on re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere– a full 87 seconds longer than predicted. In business communication with clients, staff, suppliers and advisors will continue to be important through this phase. There may be opportunities to get ahead of the competition and if nothing else, it will be important to reassure all stakeholders that the business is ‘alive and well’.

Upon return to normal, businesses will need to find ways of repairing the damage and the importance of good quality management information is vital if business owners are to accurately assess the recovery, on a timely basis.

Mission Review

The lessons learned on every mission are no doubt critical to every subsequent mission. Following each mission NASA review all aspects so my challenge for business owners is to do precisely the same thing.

In the short space of time our business has been disrupted, we have learned a lot and in simple terms we will take time to find out from all stakeholders:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we continue?

I’m determined that we will be a better business for this experience and I’m happy to learn from a ‘successful failure’ even if it was 50 years ago!