Apollo 13 is one of my very favorite movies. Tom Hanks is in peak Tom Hanks form. We have a healthy serving of bacon — Kevin Bacon that is. Ron Howard was really coming into his own as a director. Ed Harris in a position of power. NASA. Space. Astronauts. Rockets. Drama. Peril.
Oh, and it’s all basically a true story.
I mean, what’s not to love?
Why am I drawing your attention to Apollo 13 under the guise of business lessons? Because that mission taught NASA an incredible amount about smarter manufacturing, more careful planning and how to put their astronauts in the best position to survive space travel in the future. And, some of those lessons are prophetic for mobile enterprises today.
Let me explain.
The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Aquarius and the Command Module (CM) Odyssey were two very different spacecraft designed for two very different missions. The Odyssey is tasked with powering the LEM and the astronauts through space to get to the moon as well as returning the astronauts home to Earth. The LEM is purpose-built to detach from the Odyssey when it was time for the astronauts to land on the moon. The LEM descends to the lunar surface, lands, and when the astronauts were ready to rejoin the Odyssey, the LEM would take off and shuttle them back to it. That’s all the LEM was designed to do.
In a predictably governmental fashion, different manufacturers were contracted to build each module within the combined space ship.
Why is that necessarily a bad idea? Well it isn’t, assuming NASA maintained strict oversight of both and ensured every duplicate system worked the same between the crafts.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that’s not what happened. For example, the CO2 scrubbers tasked with cleaning the astronauts’ air of the dangerous gas were different between the two crafts. And when the scrubbers were no longer effectively removing CO2 from the air in the LEM, NASA had to figure out how to get a square cartridge into the LEM’s round hole using only what the astronauts had on board.
NASA’s engineers literally had to figure out how to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Oh, and if they couldn’t deliver on deadline, all the astronauts would die.
That’s one of the most important lessons ever learned in NASA’s history — make all your parts interoperable. Bolts should be the same size so any wrench can tighten or loosen them. Make sure the parts are machined in the same way with the same specifications so you can interchange them as necessary. Make all CO2 scrubbers use the same filtration cartridges. The more standardized you can make everything, the more flexibility astronauts have in problem solving in space without requiring mind-bending solutions with limited parts and time.
How does this apply to your company and its mobile strategy?
Your end users, whether they be clients, consumers or employees, should never see a seam in your mobile products. Everything should appear interoperable and interchangeable. If you used multiple different vendors to put together a suite of digital products or an entire digital ecosystem, your users shouldn’t know what app came from what developer. Or, if you’re integrating different services and platforms, it’s imperative you choose vendors who have a demonstrated track record of being able to make their solutions work with other solution providers. Much as a knight never wants a crack in his armor, so too should your company eschew software or hardware flaws.
That means you as the arbiter of your mobile offerings has to maintain close and constant contact with all relevant vendors to ensure what they’re putting together together comes out as a seamless, integrated product for its target audience.
Apollo 13 changed the way NASA planned and built spacecraft forever. As it turns out, they weren’t done teaching just yet.