Whenever we ask a group to give examples of teams that performed exceptionally in difficult circumstances we can almost guarantee that the teams which worked on the Apollo 13 Mission will come up. There were two teams; the team on Apollo 13 itself and the team on the ground supporting them. The detail of the mission was fairly well known. However, the 1995 film starring Tom Hanks told the story in compelling detail and the teamwork shone through, making it very popular in a team building context (as well as a great film).

Apollo 13 was supposed to circle the moon, sending a lander down to explore the surface before returning to earth, but an explosion forced the crew to abandon their mission. The three astronauts had to retreat into the two-man lunar lander, a vehicle that was not designed to take them home. In order to get back safely, they had to work with mission control to invent new procedures for this cramped craft, under the worst possible conditions. The key to turning this potential disaster into a successful failure was effective teamwork.

Good teamwork begins with a strong team, and the Apollo 13 and mission control teams were well placed to handle events effectively. Both teams were composed of experienced and knowledgable people, each of whom had their own area of expertise. They were used to working together to handle complex procedures while maintaining clear communication. An experienced team who have worked together before have the best chances of success, particularly when training exercises have helped them to prepare for situations that they could not experience in reality. Preparing for the worst with risk assessments and emergency simulations allows them to react quickly to problems by implementing backup plans. It also ensures that they have the expertise and confidence to adapt to circumstances as they develop.

The importance of teamwork at NASA had been highlighted by the losses previously suffered in Apollo 1. The mission control team had learned that it needed to work together, without allowing anyone’s ego to get in the way. Team members had to be able to rely on each other’s expertise, bringing together the contributions of different team members to quickly solve complex problems. Intricate procedures and checklists had to be invented, tested and completed perfectly if Apollo 13 was to be rescued. Each member of the team was able to step up and take the lead when they were needed, building on their own particular expertise, before stepping back and letting the next expert take over. An effective team needs to be interdependent, with members switching between leadership and team member roles as needed. Rather than relying on a single leader, team members are trusted to work independently and make decisions about their own area of expertise. The individual’s talents are recognized, enhanced and supported.

The recordings of the Apollo 13 mission give us a rare insight into how an effective team can work together to handle an unexpected disaster. The lessons we can learn from this event are not just important for NASA. We can all learn from the recovery of Apollo 13, particularly from the way the teams on board and back on earth communicated and remained united in the belief that, as the flight controller Gene Kranz said, failure was not an option.

Many of the team building exercises that we run are based on participants needing to work together with limited equipment and within limited time frames. It’s clearly impossible to recreate the stressful conditions faced by the Apollo 13 teams but we can still create a level of challenge that helps team to bond taking part in something that is fun. It’s an interesting exercise to watch the Apollo 13 film together as a team and think about how it would feel to have that level of co-operation and interdependence in your own team. If nothing else you will all get to enjoy a great film!