The mere mention of the word "change" elicits anxiety among many. Why is this? What is it about change that causes people to react by saying "we have always done it that way," or, "It's not worth the risk?"

That second statement is why I think change is hard. There is inherent uncertainty about changing a process, a career, an organization, etc. Change is sometimes a choice we make, but many times change is thrust upon us. Like the famous words from Apollo 13, "Houston we have a problem" — one moment you are sailing along just fine and the next moment your world changes 180 degrees.

As leaders, what can we do to lead well in these times of change?

The Fundamentals of Leading Change

One strategy in solving problems is to break it down into smaller more manageable pieces. Leading change can be broken into 6 fundamentals, which are identified in the Office of Personnel Management's Guide to Senior Executive Qualifications. By improving in each of these areas one can improve their ability to lead change as a whole. These 6 fundamentals are:

  • Vision
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Flexibility
  • Resilience
  • External Awareness

Apollo 13 Mini Case Study

With these fundamentals in mind, I want to use the Apollo 13 mission as a mini case study in how one can lead change well. Much of my material comes from the book, "The Leadership Moment," by Michael Useem, which includes Eugene Kranz, the mission's Houston-based flight director, as one of its examples.

(Quick history recap: Apollo 13, launched on April 11, 1970, would have been the third manned mission to the moon, but an onboard explosion two days after launch crippled the spaceship. Kranz was in charge of the NASA fight team that helped the astronauts jury-rig repairs well enough to return safely to Earth. Ed Harris played Kranz in the movie "Apollo 13" in 1995; it also starred Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as the stranded astronauts.)

Having your own vision for the project is great, but you must be able to effectively communicate this to create a shared vision among all. As people were starting to panic initially, Kranz brought them towards the shared vision by simply stating, "Let's solve the problem." Throughout the next few days, problem solving was at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Kranz had to be strategic in his thinking in order to achieve this vision. One early decision was to put his brightest minds in a room to develop options and new ideas. He also had them focus on very specific questions, but didn't dictate how they were to be solved.

This strategy of creating an environment to foster focused creativity and innovation was essential for success. Kranz couldn't micromanage, but also couldn't undermanage. This is where listening is necessary. Getting the smart people in the room is one step, but without listening to them it is useless. However, there can be conflicting ideas and as the leader after listening it is your responsibility to make the call.

With creative ideas being formulated, Kranz had to be flexible with new information and changing conditions. "You always want to have as many options out in front of you, because those are the things that give you the ability to change course," he said, as quoted in Useem's book.

Paired with this flexibility was resiliency. Optimism radiated from Kranz throughout the many pressure-filled days. He was able to bounce back from setbacks and maintain that their shared vision would come to fruition. Optimism is contagious, but so is negativity. Kranz knew this and when asked later said, "a positive frame of mind that is necessary to work problems in a time-critical and true emergency environment."

As the man in charge, Kranz also had to be externally aware while others were focused on their particular piece. One quick example is how when they landed back on earth what other nationalities might need to be asked to help in the rescue effort.

Self-Reflection Questions

This might be an extreme example, but for whatever project you are working on can you answer these questions:

  • What is our shared vision?
  • Do I have a strategy?
  • Who are the people who can think of new ideas?
  • Am I expecting flexibility while maintaining resiliency?
  • Are there external factors to be aware of?

Some may be easier to answer than others, but it is worth the effort to think through these if you want to lead change well.

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