“Houston, we have a problem”
On 13 April 1970 astronaut Commander Jim Lovell made one of the great understatements of the last century – ‘Houston, we have a problem’ – and though we’re waiting to hear Tom Hanks say it 50 minutes into the film version of that fateful moon mission, it still retains the ability to chill us. A compelling picture that grips despite our knowledge of the outcome, and what makes the mission remarkable is the human factor – the way people retained control over themselves, how they improvised, refused to give up, and collaborated altruistically in the face of something they had not experienced before or planned for.
The Apollo 13 story describes the classic ‘Sensemaking’ conundrum. Most of the research in this field has centred on big dramatic events that shared the following characteristics:
- High levels of technical challenge
- Very fast moving
- Threat to life or life taking events
- Extreme emotional pressure on leaders
- Extreme novelty
- Overwhelming amounts of equivocality
- And in light of above, the danger of doing something that worked for a different event, which makes matters worse
Apollo 13 and Covid-19 share common challenges.
Sounding familiar? It should. The Coronavirus crisis has unfortunately trapped our leaders into relying on pre-existing frames of reference, and under pressure, to revert to those even if they do not fit what is in front of them. It also doesn’t help when the human condition, under extreme emotional pressure, reverts to what they have (past tense) reflexively known.
Chesley Sullenberger (‘Sully’) landing his plane on the Hudson river and indeed Apollo 13 are great examples of near misses i.e. all the conditions above were present and yet they survived. Apollo 13 is the better example because it shows how many different parts of the organisation rather than one person had to behave. At its core is the point about improvisation. Sully did what the rule book said he could not; on Apollo 13 they created an on board a square peg to fit a round hole (oxygen components) for a procedure to meet an ‘impossible’ event because none of the 27,000 procedures that had been written included this one.
What data do leaders really need in a crisis?
In terms of how to best to respond when such dramatic events unfold, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that precise analytics (about people) do not work. You have to give leaders enough general information to act and improvise as the event unfolds. Act-Refine-Re-Act very quickly. Hold too tightly and to old frames of reference and you die. In the life-threatening case, literally in the corporate sense, the organisations die.
Why is this relevant in today’s crisis? Leaders need access to general and simple information to help them take the decisions they need to. Simple and accurate information, as provided by all other survey providers with their normative approaches, is too narrow and too overwhelming at this moment in time. Leaders should be very wary of diagnostics that claim high levels of accuracy in times of crisis.
Footdown’s Sensemaking tool helps business leaders see the wood for the trees.
Footdown already works using the principles of Sensemaking – providing general and simple information that rapidly helps leaders understand the state that their organisation is in and where to focus for action.
In response to the Coronavirus outbreak and the overwhelming impact on organisations worldwide, we have created a new Lens – an even lighter-touch version of our flagship product, High Performing Workplace to give leaders the very highest level of input they need to be able to Act-Refine-Re-Act at pace and with confidence on a regular basis.
The triage analogy from hospitals is a relevant one for businesses using Footdown: leaders need to know quickly what level of support is needed and where within the business it should be given. In some cases, it is minimal maintenance – significant impacts are not seen, while for others there is immediate urgency to the management focus needed. For a very short period in hospitals the norms and conventions have been suspended – time is too short. Organisations are in the same place.
Footdown’s Sensemaking approach allows the workforce to give their rapid-fire, intuitive input on the range of topics that matter to leaders – the rules engine in the software does the heavy lifting of the analysis in real time, so leaders need to check in, adjust and move on to action.
Dr Mike Carter is the Chief Scientific Officer at Footdown. Footdown has embedded the power of Sensemaking in software technology to help leaders understand their organisations quickly, effectively and efficiently, framing and supporting their decision-taking
 Sensemaking is about how people make sense of their world by reducing equivocality or ambiguity. On Leading, Learning and Organising Change: a Sensemaking Perspective. Carter M. & Colville I. Organizational Learning & Knowledge 5th International Conference, 2003.
 Taleb N. Antifragile. 2012