Dealing with “Breakdowns”: Houston, We have a problem!


Apollo 13 was the third manned Apollo moon landing mission. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970 but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the lives of the astronauts depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to find a fix to the damaged carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.  But it was tense, especially when the capsule was out of radio contact with the flight control center for several hours. There were no repair shops in cold space and the crew was on their own and had to solve the problems or perish.

Although you may face setbacks, change, crisis, and tough times, you are still accountable for meeting your goals.               – Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut and flight commander

A project or initiative that is not on schedule or not meeting its delivery expectations is “off track” and missing its planed metrics or objectives.  We call this a Breakdown, because in one way or another the team accountable for the success of this initiative is not delivering on its performance commitment and something is getting in the way.  No individual or team sets out to underperform, so we must assume there is either a physical or mental barrier, or a combination of the two.

There are two ways of dealing with Breakdowns.  Too often, managers or team leaders take the easy way out and decide that because the team is “working hard” and the best course of action is to shift the objective or revise the goal.  The fact is, all change is hard and all new initiatives face technical and business difficulties, as well as human resistance to change. It’s supposed to be hard, otherwise we would have done it already and it wouldn’t really be a Breakthrough, but just an incremental improvement.

A breakthrough is first and foremost a break from. You can’t steal second with your foot still on first base.

The only effective way to deal with a schedule or goal breakdown is through Renewed Commitment and Innovation.  With this approach and mindset, Breakdowns are seen as opportunities to re-examine the process that generated them and learn to work together more effectively.  Renewed Commitment means a stubborn unwillingness to give up or give in, and Innovation means finding a different way to solve the problem and to work together.  Get creative, get committed, find new ideas and approaches.

A Breakdown is the necessary and natural precursor to a Breakthrough.

The inevitable shift from Breakdown to Breakthrough is almost always heralded by a shift of focus from complexity to simplicity; a return to the fundamentals or the basic principles of what we are trying to accomplish. Often solutions can be fostered by talking with people “outside” of the problem, from other departments or other functions who might be able to help us see things differently.

Achieving a Breakthrough takes belief; belief that there is ‘something’ about the problem Thomas A. Edison seen here in 1929 holding a replica of his first lamp.we are confronted with that will add value for our company or our customers, even when traditional “wisdom” tells us not pursue the idea.  Second, breakthrough is more about hard work than thinking up an idea. It’s more about execution than inspiration. Start trying things and you will almost always find a new insight into the solution.  And third, it is important to get active and rapid feedback during the process.

Fail fast and fail often when trying to develop a breakthrough – don’t analyze it to death! Remember the words of Thomas Edison looking back in how he and his team invented the light bulb.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.  ~Thomas A. Edison

It’s the role of the team leader to help guide and push the team through the Breakdown to create a Breakthrough.  It is the role of the CEO not to renegotiate goals or objectives but to support and encourage the search for true Breakthroughs.

Tight Lines . . . 

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
This entry was posted in Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Life Skills, Organization Behavior, Personal Development, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dealing with “Breakdowns”: Houston, We have a problem!

  1. Chris Carter says:

    Dear John

    Great post – sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it is OK to fail – so long as its quick, the impact is minimised and as you say, we pick ourselves up quickly, learn the lessons and try again.

    Good reminder for the start of the week




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s