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Leadership by Design

Posted by: Calvin Chopp

Leading by Design

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein”

Innovation is an interesting buzzword in business. Many companies claim to be innovative, yet few seem to figure out what “innovative” truly is—what is it that drives innovation? What sets those companies that “get it” apart?

In the area of digital product innovation, there’s a reason it’s estimated that less than 1% of apps succeed, or that nearly 90% of startups never get off the ground. It’s not for a lack of an innovative vision, amazing-looking UI, or slide deck used to help sell the idea to investors. Rather, the trouble is the implementation of these innovative ideas into a tangible strategy that meets an actual consumer or user’s needs. It’s this intentionality that is often missed, which subsequently leads to failure. 

Seeing innovation through to implementation is an intentional process, but organizations struggle to build the systems necessary to consistently deliver new and improved sources of value to customers and stakeholders. It’s as James Clear states in his book Atomic Habits…”we don’t rise to our goals, we fall to our systems,” How then do innovative leaders create the systems necessary to put their plans into action to set themselves up for success? 

They lead by design.

Quite literally. They lead by design, through design led innovation. Design led innovation (DLI) is a relatively new concept within the world of product development.  Prior to the emergence of DLI 10-15 years ago, efforts in innovation and development were mostly marketing-led. But companies are increasingly turning to design-led solutions to solve their biggest challenges in reaching their customers.

This is because of DLI’s human-centered approach to innovation. That approach enables real agility for a process in which efforts to innovate are put in front of customers, validated or unsupported, and moved forward based on what findings are discovered.

Putting an innovative idea to work is like pushing a heavy ball up a hill. As if the act of doing so is not hard enough on it’s own, when you try to take steps that are too large at one time, you’re going to lose your footing, stumble and fall. In the same way, when companies make unsupported assumptions and decisions toward a desired goal during product development, it’s like trying to leap your way up the hill. Only the 1% that are the most fit and agile will make it to the top taking that approach. 

In general, marketers and designers look at users through different lenses. Marketing often asks how they can use data to quantify a company’s current position to best align that data with the stakeholder’s current value propositions. “How is X performing?”  On the other hand, design-led strategy allows a company to consider and evaluate radically new ideas from multiple perspectives. “Who is X, and why should they care what we’re creating?”  DLI typically spans user needs, business requirements as well as technology demands. This in turn gives a broader view of the consumer or user because it constitutes a human-centered approach to the research and data. DLI can lead to smarter product decisions that are good for both the company and the consumer, which helps drive innovation.

Design Led Innovation (DLI) typically spans user needs, business requirements as well as technology demands.Focusing solely on market research also tends to narrow simple questions to the most basic answers that never truly give you the full picture of why users do what they do, or how your product might help solve a problem. Confirmation bias is also a concern when only focused on market research. That is, stakeholders and teammates may look to validate their preconceived notions about what the product will do for the user by looking only at existing data or findings. Too often, they do this without venturing out to determine actual customers’ needs or doing other design-led experiments to quantify their thoughts. Market research is important in regards to a company’s well-being in general, but as it relates to innovative growth, there’s much more that should be done to ensure that your decisions are set up to drive momentum forward in a way that’s manageable, scalable and agile.

That ‘more’ is where DLI really shines. DLI leverages design thinking methodologies. Design thinking is a non-linear process that is used to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. This thinking is the small, controlled steps that allow businesses to move the ball of innovation and growth up the hill.  This is the controlled, agile approach to researching ideas, vetting those to real users and gauging their effectiveness long before large sums of time and money are thrown at said idea. 

Design thinking methodologies encompasses many things and can be researched and documented in a variety of ways. It can include user interviews, ethnographic research, observing consumer buying behaviors, guerilla research, design-led workshops, prototyping, and much more. While there are many approaches to what can be measured, it’s important to determine what strategies would be most effective for your product based on where you’re at in your product development process (something we can help you determine, if you’re having trouble figuring out where to start!).  

In a world that’s moving quicker every day with product development and getting new ideas in front of users—users who are more connected than ever before by our products, economies, thoughts and processes—the need for innovative digital companies to adapt and consider DLI is greater than ever. Especially if you want to keep up with the demands, changes and evolution of these people.

Our team here at Elexicon is well versed in DLI methodologies and has helped startups, software companies and innovators around the globe push that ball over the hill and get it rolling toward great products that people understand, buy, use, and enjoy. Keep an eye out as we’ll be sharing ways that you can start leveraging design thinking within your organization today through practical approaches that help set the tone for innovation to take root and be successful. 



It was a year or so after I’d graduated from college and I was ready to make my mark professionally on the world. I was fortunate and found a job in my chosen career path of digital design and development. I was excited to work my way up the vocational ladder. 

Along with the excitement was a building sense of stress as I felt the need to create something original for our clients every time a project came across my desk. I didn’t want anything I created to look like something anyone had seen before. I was going to be the one to start design trends.

I joined communities like Dribbble, Behance, and Instagram where I’d share work that I was doing, and to find others that inspired or I’d look up to, hoping to one day achieve similar success with my designs. Despite all that, there was always an underlying feeling of stress and anxiety around the need to be innovative and original with everything that I laid my fingers on.

It wasn’t long before I felt like I was treading water in my work with only the creative, original ideas I brought to the table (seemingly few and far between) keeping me afloat. The stress of this process was completely counterproductive to what I was trying to achieve. In the name of presenting something original within budgetary and timeframe constraints, I was creating my own creative blocks, and finding it difficult to produce products for our clients that achieved a desired goal within a desired timeframe. 

So, I want to explore what it is that drives us toward creativity, why we get creative blocks on original ideas, and how practicing good copying and mimicry can help us unleash creative potential and create better products for our customers.

What do you mean I should copy something? That’s wrong!

You’re right! Plagiarism is wrong, and not what I’m advocating. Originality and creativity is something we build up, and is a reflection of our personality and experiences, which we bake into the things we make. It’s not surprising to me  that the concept of copying is so taboo, because the line we walk between copying and plagiarism can often seem very thin.

That said, I think that it’s good for us to look at the art of copying and consider what it helps us do, when and how it should be practiced, and how we can use these techniques to improve our skills as designers. 

Copying is one of the fundamental ways we learn.

Humans are hardwired to mimic and copy. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. A baby, unable to communicate any other way, observes and learns how to accomplish many basic life skills by copying what those around them do. Speech patterns, first steps, and how to twist a door knob are all patterns that are developed through observation and mimicry. As we continue to grow, cultural norms, behavioral patterns and routines are developed largely from observation of those we associate ourselves with. (Face it, at some point in your life you will think something like  “I really am becoming my father/mother!”). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, if our brains are hardwired with learning patterns such as this, that there would be professional ways that we could apply these same processes.

For an early example of this, let’s look at the ancient city of Alexandria.

By Luigi Mayer – Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre;Arvor., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3511905

The ancient city of Alexandria was a hub of commerce, culture, and economic prosperity. From the time the city was founded, it was imbued with the spirit of curiosity. The founders of the city were greatly influenced by Aristotle, his philosophy based on observation and data collection, as well as logical reasoning, being driving factors for the city’s development. 

Being a port city, commerce from all over the world came through its harbors. For a ship to dock in Alexandria, they were required by law to give not money or other treasures, but to turn over any book they carried. The books were then copied (by hand), and a copy of their books were given back to the owners. The debate over how many books were in the total collection still is disputed, but half a million books is a typical estimate. This mass collection of books would become the Great Library of Alexandria. 

As a result of this tedious process of gathering and copying the books, the city amassed an incredible trove of knowledge of the experiences of other people, which played a large part to Alexandria making huge advancements in the ancient world, and becoming one of the central hubs of learning and innovation for the Roman Empire. 

For the leaders of Alexandria, the process of copying and studying the work and progress of many led to further innovation and ideas. Copying, mimicry, and learning are the soil in the garden of creativity. Our own experiences and personality water the seeds of innovation.

Cartoonist Lynda Berry wrote: 

“I think copying someone’s work is the fastest way to learn certain things about drawing and line. It’s funny how there is such a taboo against it. I learned everything from just copying other people’s work.”

By casting a wide net of those who we copy and observe, we create a greater opportunity to, like the city of Alexandria, use that knowledge to guide us to better, more original ideas.

Source: Steallikeanartist.com

Using copying & mimicry for professional development: learn the mindset

When we look to copy in a productive way professionally, our goal isn’t to plagiarize. (Can’t say that enough.) Our goal is to see through the eyes of the designers and creators we see doing what they do well. It’s to get a better understanding of the mindset that creates successful products. 

Search out sites, applications or other digital experiences that have been successful, and be curious. Can what made those products successful be applied to your customer in some way? How might you use those successful approaches or strategies that you’ve observed within the projects that you’re working on? 



Free yourself from the pressure of instant-originality

Just because it’s an original take on how something was done, doesn’t mean that it’s better for the user.

Original ideas don’t necessarily mean better. There’s the obvious pride in knowing that you were the first to come up with an idea, but especially in UX and digital products, we need to weigh the cost of doing something completely new against how the user will actually interact with what we’re creating, as well as the client’s budget and timeframe for production. 

There’s a reason that the majority of ecommerce experiences follow a similar general pattern, or an app’s onboarding experience follows similar steps. Users are accustomed to a certain experience, and introducing changes to that experience, unless measured and well-vetted, may have negative [expensive] repercussions.

Instead of stressing about creating a completely original approach to your client’s current problem, look for ways to leverage what you’ve observed, what you know and are capable of doing, to formulate a plan. Often, innovation and originality is discovered through this process regardless, as opposed to a conscious choice to search it out. Take time to set a project up to allow for scalability into originality. (Stay posted for an upcoming discussion on being product focused, as opposed to simply project focused. It’s applicable here.) 

Focus on authenticity, less on originality.

When originality is replaced as our focus by observation through copying and mimicry how I’ve described, we bring something else into our work—authenticity. Focus on creating authentic products that solve problems for your customer, and by doing so, give yourself the roadmap to reach new ideas. Look at how it’s been done before. Copy it, tear it down, and do it again, over and over and over again, until you start to see your own take on that idea being shaped based on your collective observations.

Before you know it, the creativity and innovation that used to stress you out will start to show organically through the ways that you approach your projects, and the products and solutions created for your clients will only benefit.


Health Beat continues to set the standard for brand journalism with trusted storytelling—when our community needs it most.

Our friend Jim Ylisela at Ragan Consulting Group recently wrote a blog post that highlights how companies’ brand journalism platforms have been essential to their communications and overall brand clarity and visibility during the COVID-19 crisis.

Jim and RCG are tremendous communication partners to some of the world’s leading brands, and these companies he’s profiling all have great stories to tell. As Jim points out, building a brand journalism platform (not just a blog or newsroom) for your organization will be even more important going forward, in your efforts to remain highly visible in the digital realm with clear, authentic, and relevant storytelling, directly to your customers and prospects.

So we won’t fault Jim for not mentioning Health Beat, a brand journalism site Elexicon , and we’ll gladly report on their accomplishments during this strange and scary spring and summertime of 2020.

Where the mission meets the moment

As the Coronavirus pandemic swiftly descended onto West Michigan in March 2020, the entire Spectrum Health organization confidently mobilized into action. As the largest health system in the region, Spectrum Health would be the epicenter for COVID-19 diagnosis, testing, and care in West Michigan. Through best-practices preparedness and strong leadership from system President Tina Freese-Decker and Chief Medical Officer Darryl Elmouchi MD, Spectrum Health has been weathering the storm as effectively as can possibly be expected.

Testing and case treatments have been handled with the utmost care and dedication from the inside, and Ms. Freese-Decker and Dr. Elmouchi have also spearheaded constant, transparent communications that kept the community informed and led to Grand Rapids and West Michigan residents successfully managing the “curve” of cases (as of this writing, trends have been carefully, optimistically, positive).

Health Beat, as you might imagine, played an important role alongside these executive communications. Information on hand washing and social distancing and telehealth options could be found everywhere, but Health Beat’s journalism clearly and authoritatively provided this type of detailed information directly from the region’s leading health experts. And, in true Health Beat fashion, they didn’t stop there.

On-the-ground reports

Health Beat delivered “on the scene” reports with photo galleries and video of drive-through testing operations, helping to reduce stress by giving patients an idea of how it works and what it would be like when they arrive.

More authentic personal stories

Health Beat’s beautiful storytelling about health journeys continued, but with a different focus: The caregivers on the front lines of Spectrum Health’s response. Health Beat created amazing profiles of the courageous nurses and doctors, where their dedication to saving lives — in the face of danger — shined through.

A steady flow of clear, trusted advice for keeping yourself and your family physically and mentally healthy

Over the past several weeks, Health Beat has delivered an incredible succession of advice for dealing with COVID-19, from identifying symptoms to staying safe and sane at home: At-home exercise, easy and affordable meal ideas, sleep advice, mental health tips, even an article reminding folks who can’t go to the hairdresser that some hair color products can cause an allergic reaction.

As our nation—and our city of Grand Rapids—were forced to once again come to grips with racial inequality and inequity in the wake of police violence and the outsized impact of COVID-19 on minorities, Health Beat continued its thoughtful reporting from the perspective of Spectrum Health’s role as a pillar of community health.

In the last few months, Health Beat has once again proven why it has achieved over 120 web site, public relations and content marketing awards, and why it’s a standard-bearer among brand journalism platforms. Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can help you develop a brand journalism platform for your communications strategies.


Managing the fifth risk

Posted by: Matt Saler

How Elexicon’s retainer service can help you manage risks to your marketing efforts in uncertain times

When rafting down a new river, it’s good to have an experienced guide.

I’ve been re-reading Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. It’s a slim volume, but I consider it one of the most important books to come out in the past few years. Lewis masterfully demonstrates the critical role the federal government plays in managing an enormous portfolio of risks that no other entity has the resources or inclination to handle.

The “fifth risk” of the title is the threat stalking out of mind, crowded out by focus on more seemingly urgent threats one, two, and three—maybe four. Lewis writes about people whose job it is to think beyond the usual prioritized threats.

Many of these risks are things most people don’t know about or ever think about—things we can live our lives without worrying about because they’re being “handled.” For example, he writes in a chapter about the Department of Energy (DOE):

Roughly half of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In eight years alone—2010-2018—the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The DOE also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders.

So, basically, the DOE is why tales of a dirty bomb or homebrew nuke going off in a city or airport somewhere in the world are only told in fantastical spy movies.

In other chapters, he writes about the Department of Agriculture’s role in ensuring a stable and robust food supply—it doesn’t just happen—and the Department of Commerce’s role in weather forecasting through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—your Weather Channel app would be far less reliable without government data. He could have written a book five times the length and not run out of material.

I should say that part of Lewis’ project is to show how the management of those risks is often itself at risk for various political reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

The takeaway that I went to emphasize is this: The Fifth Risk argues persuasively you want people at the wheel, thinking about all the ways present stability can dissolve, and working to avoid those trip points so you can keep on living your life.

Basically, you want prevention over mitigation. But it follows that if prevention fails, you want the smartest, most experienced people on hand for dealing with the fallout.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the world. The virus burst on the scene late last year as a major threat we didn’t prevent—but could have. Now we have to mitigate the threat, with measures that are far more painful than prevention would have been.

Now to Business

You know the #1 risk to your digital and traditional marketing efforts—which is not far off from saying you know the #1 risk to your business. Right now, after three months or more of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it’s probably painfully obvious. You probably have contingency plans against it and risks #2-3, maybe #4 on the outside. But what’s the fifth risk? Is anybody managing that for you?

It’s also worth pointing out that not every business is facing the same challenges right now. Maybe consumer demand for your product or service has dropped to critical levels because of the pandemic and you need to adapt efficiently to a difficult market reality. Or maybe due to the unique changes to society brought on by the novel coronavirus, your product or service is in unusually high demand and you need to ramp up effective marketing and communications quickly. Either situation carries with it deep uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead.

Whether demand is up or down or just wobbly, it’s smart to have a rapid response team available for the fast-changing reality your business faces—so you’re able to focus on your core mission. Sometimes you have such a team available internally. Often, though, you need to bring that kind of expertise in from the outside. In the latter case, how do you budget for that?

Project or Retainer?

I talked recently with a client about a budget for work they are planning for the year. The question was whether the work would be project-based or funded from a retainer. I suggested a retainer would be a valuable insurance policy for needs that may arise around their goals.

My thinking: from a budget planning standpoint, there can be more uncertainty with projects. That’s because projects often risk expectations being set with unintentionally rose-colored glasses and assumptions about best-case scenarios. When a client and a vendor try to calibrate specific project spends within a fine-tuned overall marketing budget, we find it can be easy to leave too little room for what isn’t known. When you inevitably find out what that was, it can mean costly project overages.

And even if the project goes well and stays on budget, there’s always the question “what now?” A week later, the CMS or a plugin for crucial site functionality requires a critical security update that impacts functionality. The person trained and responsible for maintaining the site content leaves for another organization a month after that. The new Chief Marketing Officer wants to change direction by next quarter. The original project is over—how do you quickly account for these new needs?

A monthly retainer is a recognition of the inherent messiness of life and work, projects and marketing. It can encompass all that is good about a project budget while offering ongoing stability and certainty.  It can position an expert agency to manage risks an organization may not have the resources or expertise to manage itself, while offering flexibility to change direction that a project-based approach lacks.

The marketing department challenge

Effective marketing translates to increased sales and profitability. To get there, you need a highly-skilled team with expertise in several key areas, as well as the right technology. Depending on the size of your business, it can be difficult and costly to make the right moves in the right sequence to build that team and bring on the right tools.

If you manage a team with marketing responsibilities within a larger organization, you may have budget, hiring, or internal resource usage limitations that restrict you in similar ways.

The marketing and digital retainer solution

An Elexicon retainer matches your marketing needs with the skills and technologies necessary to meet those needs, at a predictable cost.

We do this by:

  • working closely with you, within an overall strategy and toward set goals, with regular communications and monthly reports.
  • providing a skilled roster of experienced staff, using proven tools that are ready to plug in.
  • sharing a vested interest in the overall success of your organization—we’re always thinking ahead about what can and should be done.
  • letting you mix and match skills to goals on a month-to-month basis, making sure you only pay for what you need, when you need it.
  • harnessing the momentum that’s made by being constantly engaged, thereby avoiding the frequent startup time and costs that come with the estimate process for tactical needs.
  • offering a discounted hourly rate due to the annual commitment of the retainer

This partnership means you always have the resources and confidence to set and achieve marketing goals. A retainer approach allows your needs and costs to stay synchronized (even when needs change from month-to-month), and delivers the talent and tools you need, when you need them. The talent and tools specifically manifest in our full slate of services.

Stay vital to being vital

Our user interface design and user experience services ensure that you’re thinking through every aspect of your customer journey and user flow, whether you have a software or SaaS product, or an e-commerce ecosystem for your physical products. Your development teams may be collaborating with your sales and marketing teams to deliver the features that help the product sell, but do they help the sales “stick?” We help map out the big-picture and long-view of your user’s relationship with the product, to identify where they may be running into frustrations, and opportunities to boost customer delight.

Customer delight is especially important in times like these, when folks need to prioritize what they’re spending money on, and are thinking about what subscriptions and memberships they find vital. Your user interface and digital experience is vital to being vital.

Laying a foundation that stands the test of … anything

With our strategic services, we help our customers not only envision the big picture and the long view, but plan it and map it out. We build and iterate early product prototypes. We research, refine, and report on your digital traffic and optimize audiences. We place the right messaging and content in front of the right prospects and customers at the right time. All of this establishes a solid foundation for customer loyalty, and a clear strategy for acquiring more of those ideal customers.

Teamwork makes the dream work

All of this works on a project basis, but is particularly powerful with the continuity of an ongoing retainer relationship. Such a relationship forges the kind of bonds of teamwork that only come with practice.

With the right resources in the right place working together in the right way, you can finally accomplish things like:

  • Refreshing your site’s design
  • Updating your logo and branding
  • Setting up a digital ad and remarketing campaign
  • Getting a handle your site’s security (i.e. stopping that spam)
  • Standing up an email campaign for the first time
  • Developing a new type of communication page for your customers/audience

You can probably add to that list.

But what does it cost?

If you’re thinking “I’ve just finished my pandemic lockdown rewatch of Mad Men. Retainers are expensive. I don’t have room in my budget for a retainer,” let me put your mind at ease: a retainer is what you make it. You can, of course, do more with more. But even if it’s just a way to ensure you have somebody to call when something goes wrong with your website, that’s okay too. We’re confident you’ll see the value because we know from experience that retainers work.

If you’re ready to make a safe investment in your digital marketing, if you’re ready to have your marketing risks managed—#1-5 and beyond—by an experienced team dedicated to your success, get in touch.


Lessons in leadership, perseverance and improvisation, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “we will go to the moon” speech. I detailed my thoughts of how I felt that inspirational speech is relevant to today’s COVID-19 crisis. This past weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which happened eight years after JFK’s speech. The U.S. had already a year earlier in 1969 reached the moon with the Apollo 11 mission, “in this decade” as Kennedy aspired, and ahead of the U.S.S.R. The Apollo 13 mission had a much different result, but its story still draws a through-line directly back to Kennedy’s spirit of determination and innovation, embodied in the phrase “…that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

A ‘successful failure’

Most of you are probably familiar with the Apollo 13 mission that—due to an explosion and damage to the spacecraft—failed to land on the moon. But the craft didn’t come crashing down on the moon or back to earth. Instead, the crippled technology successfully ferried its crew safely around the moon and back home, due to the leadership, perseverance, innovation and hard work of the mission control crew in Houston. If you need a refresher, the 1995 Apollo 13 movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise is excellent work, and should be on everyone’s social-distancing list for a watch or re-watch. And an insightful new interview with the mission’s captain Jim Lovell was posted by USA Today this weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

Whether you are one of my fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs, or one of Elexicon’s clients or colleagues, I’m sure we’re all feeling uncertain and at least a little shaken right now—if not overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of this crisis’ impact on the economy. We’ve all been setting goals, and organizing the best our energies and skills. We’ve been planning our own versions of successful moon landings, and we’ve pulled some off.

But now the course that we were on has been obscured, and in some cases, seemingly erased.

No playbook, no blueprint

As I talked about in another recent post, we were holding “maps”—plans, projects, targets—for the territory our businesses and teams would traverse in 2020. Now that terrain has changed and we need new maps. The Apollo 13 mission team’s response to their sudden reversal of fate set a great example of how to rise to a challenge for which there was no playbook or blueprint, with resourcefulness and determination. Sometimes we do our best work by developing a well thought-out strategy, and then implementing that strategy to successfully reach an objective. But other times we need to respond to unexpected adversity. We need to set aside the original aspirations we had, let go of “what could have been,” and focus on what needs to be done now. In these moments, with these decisions we can still achieve our “finest hours.”

Here’s Ed Harris’ Gene Krantz* defusing any thought that “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Instead, he delivers a counterfactual, that this team is going to adapt to the new reality, and “…this will be our finest hour.”

“We have a new mission”

Many of us entrepreneurs, business owners and team leaders are now throwing out our flight plans, and are faced with a new mission. “I don’t care what anything was designed to do, I only care about what it can do,” says Harris’ Krantz in this scene. In normal times, for all of us, this is counterintuitive. We envision, plan, design, and create products and processes to do a certain thing or produce a certain result. But when we’re faced with a seismic shift in outlook or an unexpected crisis, we need to decisively and creatively determine what our business, product or services can do to first survive and then thrive in a new way.

Creativity under constraints

I’ve always loved this scene where an ad hoc team “downstairs” at mission control needs to quickly devise a way to connect a square fitting to a round hole, to give the astronauts the carbon monoxide filtering they’ll need. They need to “fit this into this, using nothing but that,” with “that” being only the spare parts and gear available on the spacecraft. The sequence is a great example of creativity under constraints, and inventing a solution with limited resources. In different ways, we’ll all be facing new constraints on our processes, where before we typically had all the resources we’d need. Sometimes, it is from within constraints that true creativity and innovation happen, and new solutions are invented that we may have never thought of before.

Communication, trust, teamwork

Finally, this roughly 4-minute scene—terrifically written* and acted—depicts the flight crew exercising their problem-solving and leadership brainpower as a team. We all know how to deliver advice on subjects that we’re experts in, and how to be a good team player. But in times like these, we need to dig deeper, below all that stuff we read and learned, and into our instincts and guts. This scene is timeless, but is especially timely and relevant in the context of current events (whether we’re talking about leading our own businesses and teams, or our leaders in government):

  • Communication: Loren Dean’s EECOM John Aaron, clearly and authoritatively arguing that “power is everything,” that the module’s electrical battery power needs to be shut down to be conserved for later. He states exactly why, and that has the data to back it up.
  • Trust: Harris’ Gene Krantz to Dean’s John Aaron, “That’s the deal?” Then after a deliberative pause, “Okay, John, the minute we finish the burn, we’ll power down the L.E.M.” Krantz knows he’s not the smartest guy in the room and sets aside any need to prove that he is. Instead, he trusts their advice, puts a plan in motion based on that trust, and then sends them off to work with a little pep talk. But the trust he instilled was probably enough extra motivation already.
  • Teamwork: Gary Sinise’s Ken Mattingly is called in to run the power simulations, to determine how to most efficiently bring the L.E.M. power down and then back up again. Mattingly requests that the simulator be “cold and dark” like it is up in the spacecraft, and he’ll need a flashlight. When he’s handed a random flashlight, Mattingly says “That’s not what they have up there … don’t give me anything they don’t have up there.” Even though the kind of flashlight is probably inconsequential to the power-up procedures, but Mattingly instinctually knows he needs to practically put himself in that cockpit with his teammates in order to precisely do his job.

While it’s no silver bullet for our anxiety, I hope that looking back on the early days of the U.S. space program provides some lessons in what we’re all capable of, and reminds us that perseverance, ingenuity, and sometimes improvisation are in our nation’s DNA.

*According to interviews with the astronauts and flight teams, and with the filmmakers, the Apollo 13 movie falls somewhere between being “firmly-” and “loosely-based” on actual events and characters. Some roles were composites, such as Ed Harris’ depiction of White Team Flight Director Gene Krantz, which also incorporated decisions made by Black Team Flight Director Glynn Lunney. Some quotes such as “Failure is not an option!” were added with artistic license for dramatic effect. Regardless, I find the movie’s dramatic portrayals to be an effective embodiment of the leadership, teamwork and problem solving that led to saving the astronauts’ lives. The movie captures the spirit of “toughness and competence” that the real-life Krantz would make a central theme of his autobiography (which, interestingly, Krantz went ahead and titled, “Failure is Not an Option”).

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