ShareFile Blog

Lessons in innovation from Apollo 13

Born in 1969, the height of the space age and the year Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, I’d always been fascinated by the achievements of NASA and the successes of its space exploration. To my great surprise, however, when I visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston in my mid-20s, it was not the accomplishments of Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission that would forever change my perspective. It was the story of Apollo 13, an ill-fated expedition that never even landed on the moon.

Astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew experienced a near-fatal equipment failure, leading to the loss of most of their oxygen. They had one possibility for survival: to connect a spare air filter from the damaged Command Module to the air recycling equipment in the undamaged Lunar Exploration Module. The only problem? The Command Module filters were square, and the LEM filters were round. The crew literally had to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole.

What the crew and ground staff on the Apollo 13 mission experienced was not the luxury of time or resources; in fact, all possible forces were against them. And yet, despite the pressure of what would happen if they failed, they discovered a solution. Their miraculous innovation came as the fruit of their unwillingness to accept failure.

The conundrum with innovation

Many large companies have struggled to innovate despite having an obvious demand from the market and arguably exorbitant resources at their disposal. Nokia offers a great example, having gone from being the top cellphone company in the world to being almost completely displaced by the smartphone revolution led by Apple and Android.

In contrast, if you look as successful startups, they struggle for financial support, lack resources and constantly fight for survival — but they still manage to create, be productive and prosper. Why is it that startups with so many odds against them are often the ones that prosper? What made Apollo 13 survive in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? For innovation to succeed, we need that sense of urgency, that survive-or-die motivation to really excel and remain masters of innovation as we grow.

Pressure-cooking your way to innovation

When I joined ShareFile and visited the office for the first time, I counted seven developers crammed into a small room, TV monitors around them screaming the current state of all services being used to serve file sharing. The energy was evident; this was a startup pressure cooker. Our goal was to deliver the most secure enterprise-ready solution. We had no documentation, no build machines and no time to waste. Our sense of urgency was omnipresent, owing to our need to deliver an outstanding product to the enterprise — and to do it yesterday.

We took ownership of our problems and put our heads down until they were solved. We all rolled up our sleeves and started coding. We had to deliberately innovate every day or face failure. Any focus on architecture, hiring and planning happened as we coded. We put ourselves in an engineering pressure cooker and just relentlessly persisted until something — it could have been success or failure — came out. Experiencing it firsthand, I finally felt that rush Jim Lovell described on my NASA tour. Failure was a possibility but not an option, and so we found success.

Exploring the depths of what it means to innovate

We haven’t forgotten the lessons we learned in those early days, even as we’ve grown to more than 100 engineers. We still deliberately innovate to get the edge on delivery. Our approach for growth has been to commit each quarter to our top five goals, which are nonnegotiable, so planning and prioritization is simple.  From strategy to plan to execution, we have been following the rhythm principles outlined in the book Rhythm.

With those usually cumbersome steps out of the way, we can rapidly begin engaging with engineers on other ideas and potential features that could impact our business.

Through this process, our hope is to find the hardest problems and align engineers who passionately want to solve them. And when we find them, we don’t always staff their projects heavily or give them the luxury of time; it is all about a sense of urgency and passion to excel. And here, because of this pressure to innovate and move fast, we have experienced huge successes on the most strategic product features, which has allowed us to innovate despite our size and despite our growth.

Innovation doesn’t come from always being a success. It happens because you overcome the fear of failure, and act because you know you must. Failure is a possibility, but not an option. We need to let our teams work out problems, experiment with fewer resources and get a dose of the pressure of time. It will require a shift in perspective and it may seem impossible. But as Jim Lovell put it, “as we worked our way through solving one crisis after another, our percentage of success increased.”

As I listened to Lovell’s story on that trip to NASA back in 1995, I realized that always getting things right is not what matters; how you face adversity and challenge is what makes success.