The Apollo Mindset: how teamwork could turn a dream into reality

04 Jun 2019 | WorkLife

The Apollo Mindset: how teamwork could turn a dream into reality

By Louise Smith

How many people can you name associated with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969? Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will be fairly obvious, and maybe their fellow astronaut Michael Collins? Some will almost certainly say President Kennedy, as although he didn’t live to see the feat accomplished, it was his vow to put a man on the moon before 1970 that saw NASA embark on the Apollo programme. But I’m guessing that no one can name all of the 400,000 who contributed to the achievement.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this year, but Professor Richard Wiseman has managed to find a new perspective on one of man’s greatest accomplishments for his latest book Shoot for the Moon, which I saw him discuss recently.

Professor Wiseman has interviewed all the surviving Mission Control staff (whose average age was just 26 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon), and has identified what he refers to as the ‘Apollo Mindset’, eight psychological principles that helped them to achieve success: Passion, Innovation, Self-Belief, Learn How to Fail, Responsibility, Courage, Preparedness and Flexibility. And while most of us are unlikely to take part in a space exploration programme, that doesn’t mean we can’t transfer the ethos to our own lives.

The picture Professor Wiseman paints whilst explaining the Apollo Mindset is historically fascinating: the fervour, the anecdotes, the cautionary tales and the fact that Armstrong and Aldrin were only able to leave the Moon because of a pen lid (yes, really). As a Project Manager I can appreciate Apollo as one of the greatest examples of agile thinking and iterative development ever, but for me the most engaging element is the common theme of teamwork that runs through the book.

Although it isn’t an Apollo principle in its own right, in my opinion teamwork is the thread that underpins all eight notions. Without the overarching desire to collaborate and deliver something so much larger than the sum of the individuals involved, very little could have been achieved.

Chris Kraft, NASA’S Director of Flight Operations during the Apollo programme, encouraged an environment of ‘We’ over ‘I’ – the team would succeed or fail, but they would do it together. This mindset doubtless helped them to keep moving forward when the project suffered fatal losses, but that’s not to say that people hid behind each other. The staff thrived on the responsibility associated with each of their roles, adopting the mantra of “it won’t fail because of me” and not wanting to disappoint Kraft.

They were attempting to do something many senior NASA staff members thought was impossible, hence why younger employees, spurred on by Kennedy’s rhetoric and promoted by Kraft, occupied such prominent roles on the project. Far from buckling under the pressure of making life or death decisions, sometimes in a matter of seconds, these men were so passionate about coming to work that it didn’t even feel like a job to them.

The tale serves as a great reminder of what can be accomplished if you dream big, stay motivated and work together.

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