This article was first published on Medium.
It was a typical day when I woke up that morning. For some odd reason there was no usual rush to eat breakfast and get ready for school. Today, there would be no school.
My father rallied us around the table and said today was very special. “It’s a very important day for the world”, he said, “because a man who was here on Earth just 4 days ago is going to land on the moon today”. It was incomprehensible for me as a five year old, that a man like my father was actually going to land on the moon and then possibly walk on that small milky white ball that I’d glanced up at in the night sky on most nights.
As the hours slipped away my father’s voice suddenly broke through my play. “It’s time, they're landing.” We settled quickly and perched in front of the walnut veneer furniture affectionately called the ‘telly’. My brother and I had never sat so still before or been so silent for so long. Our eyes fixated on the grainy silver pictures of Neil Armstrong descending down the ladder. Our small suburban lounge room filled up with the crackle of Neil Armstrong and Mission Control squawking like robots spliced with silence and bursts of beeping tones. For a moment in time I was fortunate enough to witness what an international act of collaboration can achieve. It had taken NASA eight years and seven months from Kennedy’s famous pledge in May 1961 to reach that moment when Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 21st 1969.
The Apollo program involved more than 400,000 engineers and scientists, and technicians from more than 20,000 private companies and universities to reach the achievement of one man walking on the moon.
Apollo 11 Mission image — Lunar Module at Tranquility Base. View of the Lunar Module at Tranquility Base.
Image taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong during the Apollo 11 Mission. Photo credit
Can you imagine achieving this level of collaboration without a single laptop or mobile device? Without desktop productivity software, no email or text messaging? The collaboration effort was run on the sheer will of people working collaboratively for the greater good. The transparency of meeting frequently to openly discuss problems, compare notes, refine plans, review and revise designs and asking questions with open hearts which were all aligned for the common goal; putting man on the moon.
Owen W. Morris, Chief Engineer of the Lunar Module, commented...
“We get together on a frequent basis, compare notes about what the problems were and what anybody could do to help the situation. And there was a spirit of cooperation pretty much throughout the program. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support they needed.”
The Apollo program ratifies the three core ingredients for successful business collaboration:
- A steadfast vision and focus,
- A willingness to co-operate and ‘leave your ego at the door’
- and an open forum that encourages participation
Maxime Faget, Director of Engineering and Development at the Manned Spacecraft Centre said...
“The program management team would make the decisions, but everyone could speak as long as they were unsatisfied with what was going on. People from different teams would participate it was an open forum.”
When collaboration is distilled down to it’s bare bones, you’ll find it’s about people working together to achieve a common goal within a given timeframe. At no point did any of the engineers, testers or even the astronauts ever say “Screw it, this’ll never work”. Al Jazeera’s Caroline Radofsky, whose grandfather was the man behind the iconic Apollo 11 spacesuits, held 18 interviews and asked this very question. Whether they had worried about making a deadline or returning to Earth safely the answers were all the same; "We get on with it, one step at a time."
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deploying the U.S. Flag. This frame from the 16-mm camera mounted in the Lunar Module window shows Neil Armstrong (left) and Buzz Aldrin (right) deploying the U.S. Flag. Photo credit
NASA also made it personal. George Muller whose nickname was ‘the father of the space shuttle’ and who was instrumental in the Apollo program, enlisted the help of the astronauts. Each national hero would make personal visits to the factories where parts of the Apollo rockets were manufactured. It bought home the human factor that a single technical problem could end up killing the man the engineer’s had just met. It compelled thousands of people to devote their lives to ensuring the success of the Apollo program for the best part of a decade.
The essence of collaboration is when the goal itself is greater than the individual. Leading a business collaboration effort on the scale of the Apollo program takes immense courage, commitment and determination.
In our experience we view organizations and business teams battling to communicate effectively, feverishly attempting to achieve their goals quickly and all the while frustrated that it’s not happening in the blink of an eye because of the immediacy that modern technology provides. In the worse cases, we have been privy to internal fighting over the most trivial things because of the machinations of power that no enterprise is immune too. Something that would have buried the Apollo program very quickly.
Business collaboration today can learn a great deal from the men and women who put a man on the moon. Achieving a significant engineering event without email and desktop software. If we peel back the layers, the dream of standing on the moon started as an idea in one man’s mind. He shared the vision with many, and the small five year old at home in front of the telly has never forgotten the significance of what was achieved that day.