Houston, We Have A Solution: 3 Steps to Success in Critical Situations

by Michael Kopczewski

There’s a scene in the movie “Apollo 13” that is burned into my memory.

As the spacecraft makes its way toward the moon, an unexpected failure inspires the famous line from astronaut James Lovell.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

We all know the real-life ending of Apollo 13. Thankfully mission control worked a miracle in an impossible situation to save the spacecraft and crew. But how?

The reality of the Apollo 13’s critical situation—scarcity of time, information, personnel and equipment—draws parallels to critical situations, hopefully not so life-threatening, that are common for managers in product development and beyond. In fact, the aforementioned famous phrase gets uttered occasionally within the walls of Design Central, too.

So how do we handle these situations?

I’ve been fortunate to experience a few “cannot fail” moments from which I learned key insights. Below are three elements that are critical to being successful when the odds are against you.

1. Embrace the limits and use them to focus your effort.

It’s daunting when information for one or multiple variables is scarce. What is going on here? What is the real problem to solve? How in the world are we going to find a solution with the time and resources we have? And, inevitably, there is that question in the back of everyone’s mind: What if we fail?

But scarcity isn’t all bad. It causes tunnel vision and hyper-focus. This “tunneling” can be an effective tool to limit the scope of an activity or project, giving clarity and providing urgency by demanding a response to a question. If used correctly, scarcity can motivate and force creative thinking and approaches.

In my early days at Design Central, I was fortunate to learn the wisdom, art and science of turning scarcity into opportunity, which gave surprising and successful outcomes.

2. Form a critical response team.

When we’re working to strategize for a proposal, a project scenario or a seemingly impossible problem, we often create a collaboration task force—a cross-disciplined team from across our organization.

We share the challenge before us—then start the clock.

Teamwork and collaboration are key when forming a response team. It requires more than simply gathering a group of people who might be free to brainstorm solutions. This team must be intentionally formed, orchestrated by a seasoned conductor and given an environment in which to observe, learn, process and create without fear.

3. Take the ego out of it—and know your thought orthodoxies.

The best results come when every team member in the organization listens, observes and creates with a higher sense of team and purpose for solving the problem. There’s an underlying belief here at Design Central that ideas and solutions benefit the entire organization when we encourage each other to strive for new perspectives and build on each other’s work. We all grow as a result.

Similarly, working to identify and suspend one’s hidden “thought orthodoxies,” or personal biases, can lead to new ways of thinking and bring profound and creative solutions. In every part of our lives, we base our thinking on assumptions formed by our experience and knowledge of the world. These thoughts greatly affect the creative process. Identifying and rejecting one’s preconceived assumptions is extremely important in understanding how unconscious bias can limit creativity and problem-solving.

Next time you hear a version of the phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” accept the challenge.

My years of collaborating in creative ways with the brilliant people at Design Central—in even the most critical situations—has shown me that not just accepting it but also embracing it leads to successful solutions.