And the Oscar for Best PMO Movie goes to...

“PMO Movie”, unlike Best Actress or Best Screenplay, is not a category that people wait for with anticipation on Oscars Night. I don't watch the event so I can't be sure, and in fact the category does not even exist, which makes it hard to win it. Have you ever heard the old wise saying: “to a fool with a hammer everything is a nail”?  It's a private foolishness but I do think that PMO movies exist; they are just disguised so as to not frighten the horses. 

What makes a PMO movie?  There needs to be a group, just off the limelight, but who are vital to the outcome of whatever quest/adventure/journey the story is about. Others will be the heroes and heroines, but these people will know what works and what doesn't. These people will set it up so that the “heroes” can strut their stuff. 

To me, the best PMO movie of all time is “Apollo 13” - it's worth watching again and again. I nod with borrowed pride at critical moments when the PMO members display the right stuff, and towards the end my eyes glow a bit when I spot Gene Kranz: sitting alone at his console while every one whoops and hollers at the safe landing, crying. 

Big-name stars play the astronauts, quite rightly. There is no doubt that the high drama belongs up there in the cold unforgiving void between Earth and Moon. But look again at Ed Harris’ brilliant performance as Gene Kranz, Lead Flight Director. The Mission Control team are the PMO, led by Gene Kranz. When the accident strikes they have to figure out a way to let the project fail with the least damage.  In this case the imperative is to get the astronauts back alive. Priorities have to be put in context, and the carefully designed and tested procedures for flying to the moon and back have to be ripped apart and a vital subset assembled on the hoof. Read that again: the PMO with the right stuff rips up the existing procedures to make it happen. 

By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many scenes of Kranz and the team working out what the options are, what can be done.  What shines through is the determination that failure won't be the final outcome on their watch. They develop a way to build an air filter on board out of existing parts, to ensure that the three astronauts would not be overcome by carbon monoxide that was reaching dangerously high levels in the air they were breathing.  They develop a way to save the precious little energy that is left in the batteries; they develop new procedures for re-entry that will not require computer assistance.  When they lay out all the options failure is not one of them. 

What impressed me the most was the scene when Kranz is quizzing the team on what the status is, and all he gets is a list of all the things that are going wrong - well trained people trying to find root causes. The explosion that blew out part of the command module had caused the oxygen, water, fuel and electrical systems to fail. Even the lightbulb in the conference room projector blows out as he starts his meeting. He holds up both hands and asks them: "Hold it, gentlemen, hold it, I don't care about what went wrong. I need to know what is still working on that spacecraft. I need to know what is still working."  To me this is the essence of PMO in a crisis, knowing the environment inside out you start from what you have: what is working. You work with you what you have, you know what the priorities are, or you find out. You make it happen from where you find yourself - this is not about theoretical standards and processes. You build the procedures you need, and then yes: you follow them. 

I have been writing about PMO in a fairly technical way, and will continue to write posts to explain to myself what works and why.  Also how. But today I'm concerned with the emotion underlying the drive to have a project environment that is the best it can be for a given organisation.  When it comes to the real-life Gene Kranz it is easy to see that drive in this setting, so far from the limelight. It's a visceral thing in the end, and it is strong: failure is not an option. 

Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills.
— Gene Kranz

Forget about the movies for a moment, the strengths and talents of Gene Kranz and his Mission Control team were developed over time. Projects and programmes come and go. During the Mercury programme, which put the first Americans into space and orbit, Kranz was the Procedures Officer, in charge of integrating Mercury Control with the Launch Control Team at Cape Canaveral, Florida, writing the "Go/NoGo" procedures that allowed missions to continue as planned or be aborted. He was promoted to Assistant Flight Director and then, with the upcoming Gemini flights, he was promoted to the Flight Director level.  After Gemini, he served as a Flight Director on odd-numbered Apollo missions, including Apollos 7 and 9. He was the Flight Director for Apollo 11, during the moment when the Lunar Module Eagle landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969.  So there is a wealth of experience acquired before the moment when Kranz's team were on duty and part of the Apollo 13 service module exploded.  

In fact, the greatest lesson for PMO comes from an earlier Gene Kranz, the young Flight Director with two major space programmes under his belt. On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck the Apollo program when a flash fire occurred in command module 012 during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight.  An inquiry was set up which would eventually result in an overhaul of processes and quality control. In the meantime, people had to deal with the shocking death by fire of the three astronauts of the Apollo 1 mission: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. So, on the Monday morning following the fire, Kranz made the following address to his team (The Kranz Dictum):

"Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, 'Dammit, stop!' I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did. From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: 'Tough' and 'Competent.' Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write 'Tough and Competent' on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."

No excuses.  That’s the PMO standard.

Header image: The damaged service module (Apollo 13).  Source - NASA

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