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Getting the time to do good stuff

Face of Big Ben

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Gene Kranz's waistcoat

Every organisation has a story

Every organisation has a story. Why it was started, who were the founders, the first product, key characters and occasions along the way, adversities overcome, game changing meetings. Every day adds a few more paragraphs. But when you’re involved in the tale, it’s easy to get buried in day-to-day detail and lose the thread.

Highlighting and celebrating iconic stories that stand for your spirit brings everyone together and teaches them how to act — who hasn’t learned the importance of resourcefulness, determination and creativity through Edison’s famous story of 1,000s of failures on the way to incandescent success.

Some of the sharpest stories are wrapped around a tangible icon.

The worlds most famous waistcoat

For instance, the picture above is of the worlds most famous waistcoat, worn by Gene Kranz throughout the failed Apollo 13 Moon mission in 1970. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, in Washington DC, displays it with this explanation:

Eugene F. “Gene” Kranz, Chief of NASA’s Flight Control Division, wore this suit vest during Apollo 13, the third planned lunar landing mission. While the spacecraft was going to the Moon, an explosion occurred in its service module. Mission Control aborted the Moon landing and worked with the ground support team of astronauts, technical experts, and aerospace contractors to solve several key problems and to bring the crew back safely.

As the leader of Mission Control’s “white team,” Kranz wore a different white suit vest for each mission from Gemini 9 in 1966 through Apollo 17 in 1972. He wore plain vests, like this one, during the missions; he reserved fancier versions for celebrating mission completions. All were hand sewn by his wife.

Although Kranz’s trademark vests were well known at the time, his portrayal by actor Ed Harris in the blockbuster 1995 film Apollo 13 made this particular vest iconic.

As was the custom in Mission Control, “white” was retired from flight team colors after Kranz’s retirement.

Gift of Eugene F. Kranz Family

My favourite scene in Ron Howard’s movie is a meeting called to work out how to keep Apollo 13’s crew alive and return them safely to earth. Kranz lays out the problem with a picture and asks the room for ideas. Everyone starts talking at once, opinions are flying, each person shouting over the other.

Kranz stands in the middle of all this chaos wearing his pure white waistcoat like a beacon of order, discipline and possibility. He keeps bringing the team back to the problem, pushing for answers, being decisive and demanding in turn. This “failure is not an option” scene happened for real and is a model of teamwork and leadership under pressure.

Icons are shorthand

Everything I know about the spirit of NASA is symbolised by that white waistcoat. Hearing the story, even the rawest of recruits can’t fail to learn the keys to success: high motivation, discipline, goal orientation, whatever-it-takes attitude, trust in the team, collaboration, demanding leadership.

Whilst not every team is playing for the same stakes as Apollo 13’s Mission Control, and few leaders are blessed with Kranz’s feeling for symbols or occasion, with a little bit of thought every company can find its icons.

What are yours?

You can hang them in reception, name company awards after them, tell the stories at all-hands events, use them to induct new staff.

An old waistcoat may not be the most common example, but stories wrapped around iconic visual aids are the quickest and most effective way of getting everybody pointed in the same direction and acting together.

What about you?

What icons does, or could, your company use? What have you seen other companies using?

Or, is this wrong headed, pandering to yesterday when it’s only today that matters?

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