As depicted by the Hollywood movie, when Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, famously transmitted those words on 13 April, 1970, a shock rapidly spread through NASA’s Mission Control team. Ground Technicians were stunned by what their instrumentation was telling them. An explosion had ripped through the space craft causing a catastrophic failure of life support and other essential systems. Set on its course towards the moon, every second the craft became further and further away from Earth. The lives of the three astronauts on board seemed all but lost and the weight of responsibility rested on the Mission Director, Gene Krantz. At that moment, they did indeed have a problem. In fact, lots of them. Little did they know that it would turn into one of the greatest opportunities NASA had ever experienced.
We are all faced with problems in everyday life, although thankfully they are usually a little less dramatic. There is a natural ‘life cycle’ of a problem as we journey towards a solution, linked to our energy and commitment to solve it. I call it ‘P-C-O’: Problem, Challenge, Opportunity. Let me explain.
When we are first faced with something unexpected or a block in our path, it occurs to us as a Problem. Something we perhaps wish we didn’t have to deal with. We might feel resentment because we know that it will slow us down. Indeed, just thinking about it can be daunting, or sometimes even draining. At that moment the Problem, and our approach to it, is static: it’s just sitting there in our way. It’s like the two sides of an American football game facing each other off before the whistle blows. Nothing is moving – and yet the attacking side can see the wall of defence before them.
But then, should we choose, we put our head down and – with energy and commitment – we attack the Problem and take it on. This is the moment the Problem turns into a Challenge. In some ways, nothing has really changed – just our perception of it. When we see what’s opposing us as a Challenge it indicates that we have chosen to own it and attack; we’re leaning into it and we’re going to fight our way through. It’s like the whistle has been blown in the football game and we’re off, executing our plan, adapting as we charge, dodging as we go, inspired and driven by the goal on which we’ve set our sights.
As we navigate our way through the Challenge we get to the point that we feel we’re making progress. We can see through and out the other side; we’re not there yet, but momentum is really building and we’re close. This is the moment that the Challenge can turn into Opportunity. In our football game we can see how we can dodge the last defensive player – and yes, with one last push, we can get that touchdown and transform the game.
Problem-Challenge-Opportunity is very much linked to the idea of Perception-Action-Result. The Perception we have of a situation causes us to take the Actions we take, which give us the Results we get. How we perceive what is opposing us will determine whether we see it as a Problem or a Challenge or an Opportunity – and the level of energy we bring to moving forward. It’s valuable to recognise these stages in ourselves and also when helping others. To tell someone that they should see the Problem in front of them as an Opportunity when they are not ready for that transition can be futile at best and seriously counterproductive at worst. Sometimes we need to live in that Problem before we can find the energy or courage to take it on. We all need to make our own choice to move forward and overcome what’s facing us, and that choice is driven by Perception.
Back to Apollo 13: towards the end of the movie, the film cuts to one of the final scenes in Mission Control. Remarkably, they have overcome what may have seemed insurmountable problems at first and the spacecraft is about to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Gene Krantz is seen overhearing a conversion between his boss, the Head of NASA and the Media Science Reporter. There are still Problems the NASA team can do nothing about, including possible cracks in the heat shield, a potentially dangerous re-entry angle, parachutes that might not open and a tornado in the splashdown area. The Head of NASA says, despondently to the Reporter that this could be the biggest disaster NASA has ever seen. With a defiant glare, Krantz turns to his boss and interjects, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this will be our finest hour.”
The Head of NASA still just sees Problems, while Krantz has jumped straight to Opportunity. The circumstances of the situation are identical; the perception and the energy that goes along with them couldn’t have been further apart.