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Executive Edge and Your Brain Series: Apollo 13 – Analysis Makes the Complex Simple

Have you ever been in a crisis management situation where it felt like the storm of ideas to resolve the crisis, was more overwhelming than the incident itself?

As we continue our Executive Edge series, I want to show you how exactly that type of situation occurred in the Apollo 13 operation, and how the leadership you demonstrate at such a time, can have a dramatic impact on the result you get.

In an earlier article titledFocus Averts Panic’,I wrote about how Gene Kranz (Flight Director of the Apollo 13 Mission)  immediately took control of the incident response by saying;“Stop, everyone, I can only process one piece of information at a time”.

He had exemplified a key tenet of Fluid Thinking – Focus.

Now, it was time to provide the team with the next fundamental step by harnessing their collective thinking ability.

So, Gene Kranz said:


By giving this clear directive, he charged his team with analyzing the situation and working out exactly what had happened.

► No guessing.

► No opinions.

► No shooting from the hip.

Only clear, concise and factual analysis of this situation would do.

And he needed this analysis before a solution could be hypothesized, evaluated and implemented.

So, rather than just jumping in to address the issue, Kranz directed his ground crew team to step back, ask questions and breakdown all the component parts of what just happened into a logical sequence of events.

Kranz needed his team to work through a deep analysis of the situation and clearly define the problem with which they were dealing:

1.    He needed them to analyze an extremely large amount of data, quickly

2.    He needed them to rapidly break this complex issue into smaller bite-size chunks

3.    Finally, he needed them to get to the root cause of the situation.

Only then could his team quickly explore options and strategies to bring the Apollo 13 crew back safely. This was not a time for guesswork or a knee jerk reaction. The lives of three astronauts were hanging in the balance. A strategy based on guesses and opinions could kill them all.

Luckily for both the crew and the ground team, Gene Krantz took command as an extraordinarily adaptable and agile Leader. He harnessed his agile Leadership and Fluid Thinking skills to successfully lead his team under immense pressure.


Analysis is a fundamental component of developing the Executive Edge.

Analysis is defined as the process of breaking a complex topic into smaller parts in order to gain a better understanding of it.

The technique has been applied in the study of mathematics and logic since before Aristotle.

By contrast though, when the pressure is on, many people pursue a ‘trial and error’ approach. Perhaps you’ve used this yourself at times. It can feel like trial and error is more productive, or more efficient because it’s action-oriented. You jump right in, hands-on, and start testing possibilities.

In the case of Apollo 13, this could have been very tempting. Gene Kranz, however, knew this approach was a recipe for disaster.


Once his team had defined the problem and the root cause, they had a clear Signal (remember how we talked about the Signal and the Noise?) and could then Focus their attention on solving ‘the right problem.’

Frequently, in today’s frantic business environment, Executives can be distracted by interesting but extraneous Noise, which interferes with their ability to detect a clear Signal. (See the previous article: Apollo 13 - Focus averts Panic.)

It’s important to hear the Signal because your brain’s cognitive performance rapidly decreases when you are over stressed due to information overload – especially when dealing with significant problems or issues.

Can you imagine if Gene Krantz had simply been “overwhelmed” at the prospect of fixing the emergency before him? Or if he had started rapid-fire “try this, try that” strategy, without a comprehensive, factual analysis of the situation?

Focus combined with Analysis was the only viable response.


High Analytical Thinking capability fends off reacting at a ‘feeling level,’ and instead, ensures you are working at a ‘thinking level.’

There are two key aspects of Analytical Thinking:

1.    The Effectiveness of Analytical Thinking drives the quality of undertaking analysis of complex issues and simplifying them by breaking the issue down into its component parts.

This leads to much better problem definition, which is the foundation of solving problems and issues.

2.    The Efficiency of Analytical Thinking drives the speed at which an Executive can process large amounts of information in the moment.

As mentioned in previous articles, the ten Fluid Thinking abilities [] are underpinned by ‘subconscious brain subroutines’ which operate automatically according to the effectiveness and efficiency of the particular ‘subroutine’, and, without a person’s conscious awareness.

So, if a person’s Analytical Thinking subroutine has been poorly ‘written and wired into their brain’, then this impacts the speed with which they can analyze information. It also diminishes the quality of the response they compose.

It’s like the speed limiter device on a truck. It limits the maximum speed at which the truck can travel. If the driver wishes to go faster by putting the accelerator pedal to the floor - it just can’t go faster than the maximum speed the limiter has restricted it to.

It’s imperative for today’s Executives and aspiring Leaders to develop their Fluid Thinking ability to manage the increasing information overload, digital disruption, artificial intelligence, and rapidly changing business and political environments.

Developing high quality and faster Analytical Thinking will enhance their ability to process the tsunami of complex information which is continually and rapidly bombarding an Executive in everyday life.


Approximately 46% of Executives that we tested have Low to Moderate Analytical Thinking ability. As an Executive, lower Analytical Thinking capability impacts your ability to quickly and effectively define issues and problems and cut to the chase to find solutions.

Contemplate how these aspects of Low Analytical Thinking might affect your Leadership ability. Do you ever:

☐ Prefer not to analyze large amounts of detailed information, particularly when under time pressure

☐ Tend to take a long time to mull things over, before making decisions

☐ Have difficulty cutting to the chase in time pressure situations

☐ Tend to react at a ‘feeling level’ when handling conflict situations as it takes some time to fully analyze what’s going on

☐ Tend to procrastinate, as it takes some time to fully analyze a situation and determine just where to begin the task at hand

☐ Have to re-read documents before the main ideas become apparent (so can have a tendency to highlight a lot of a page because everything seems equally important)


Today’s Executives are working at a frantic pace. Some say they feel quite ‘fractured’ in this turbulent, continuously changing business environment. It’s clear the demands of business and organizational flux are challenging.

Though you might think of “Analytical Thinking” as a tactical skill set, it’s not. In fact, it’s a critical component to leading teams through chaotic, ambiguous and complex business situations like the one on Apollo 13. It is a fundamental Leadership skill.

Without a fast and high-quality Analytical Thinking capability, there is a large risk of an Executive being unable to quickly process detailed formation in stressful situations like the Apollo 13 scenario. As the stress rises further, Executives’ cognitive performance will deteriorate further – just when they need it most.

Thankfully, Apollo 13 had an Adaptive Leader who had the Fluid Thinking Skills to lead his team through a process that took them one step closer to the best possible outcome. 


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