Tag Archives: spaceflight

A New View of Apollo 8, NASA’s Perfect Mission

Apollo 8 in 1968 was NASA’s perfect Christmas Mission that at the time awed and moved the whole world. Our forthcoming movie “Mission Control: the Unsung Heroes of Apollo” gives a new perspective on the flight from the consoles in Houston, and shows that Apollo 8 was also an extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership and remarkable teamwork.

A New Movie

In the last two years I have had the privilege to be a producer on the upcoming new Haviland Digital movie Mission Control: the Unsung Heroes of Apollo, working with director David Fairhead and producer Gareth Dodds. We were inspired by Rick Houston, an expert in space history and the author of “Go Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control”. The film should be released around the spring of 2017.

The film is about a remarkable decade of achievement by the people who worked at consoles in Mission Control in Houston. The team members were born against a backdrop of economic turmoil and global conflict. Some came from a rural lifestyle little changed from the 19th century. Others grew up in a gritty, blue-collar America of mines and smoke stacks. They ranged from kids straight out of college to those toughened by military service. But from such ordinary beginnings, an extraordinary team was born.

They were setting out on what JFK called:

“The most hazardous, dangerous, and greatest adventure upon which mankind has ever embarked”.

Through their testimony – and the supporting voices of Apollo astronauts and modern NASA flight directors – the film takes us from the faltering start of the program through the Mercury and Gemini missions, the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire to the glories of the Moon landings.

In making the film, we had the immense privilege of spending time with these men, who had taken part in some of the greatest events of the twentieth century.

And for many, it will be a new viewpoint – a viewpoint of the space program from the ground, not the capsule.

Most of us, when thinking about that era, will come first to Apollo 11 – when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the lunar service. But almost universally, for those in Mission Control, their favourite mission was not the moon landing – extraordinary as that was – but the first journey to orbit the moon: Apollo 8.

1968 – A Year of Challenges

1968 was a difficult year. In the world at large, it had started with the North Vietnamese launching the Tet offensive. It was also to be the year of the My Lai massacre. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were riots in Paris and Chicago, and a sense of revolution hung coldly in the air. In June, Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy, and in the autumn, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.

It had also been a challenging period for NASA. In January of 1967, a fire had swept through the first Apollo capsule intended for space during a ground test. The fire was caused by a mix of bad wiring and a pure oxygen atmosphere. And because the escape hatch mechanism was clumsy, three astronauts lost their lives in horrible circumstances.

The pain of that event is still felt fifty years later. It was an avoidable and unexpected body blow for the Apollo program – one that could have easily proven fatal.

Flight Director Gene Kranz – famous for his core role in saving the Apollo 13 crew – had taken his team aside at that point and asked them to take and feel their own accountability, and then write on their blackboards the words tough and competent– a vow to do their best and strive for excellence, but also be willing to raise their hands when schedule and other pressures threatened a mission and its crew.

So, 1968 for NASA was a year of recovery and regrouping. And many – including Dr Chris Kraft, the creator of Mission Control – came to think that period of recovery proved to be necessary and essential. With the tragedy and without the cold and clear response from NASA in improving things, the moon landings may not have happened.

The main spacecraft was redesigned to a higher “Block II” standard. Flammable materials were eliminated from its interior. The hatch was made easy to open. The NASA leadership of the era passed the main test of real leadership: can you handle the bad times?

The first success of this new phase was Apollo 7, where a three-person crew tested the main spacecraft – the CSM or Command and Service Module. This flew without a real hitch in Earth orbit in October 1968.

It still wasn’t plain sailing. Apollo 6 – an uncrewed mission – had tested the mighty Saturn V rocket and it had turned out to be quite a ride. The launch was so violent that the rocket had “pogo-ed” , and any crew would have been injured or killed. The design was later changed so that helium gas was pumped into voids in the ducts leading to the F-1 engines to change the overall resonance characteristics of the vehicle. There were also issues that caused the premature shut-off of engines in the second stage, requiring another set of fixes.

And then the lunar module – the spidery and fragile craft that was meant to land on the Moon – was proving to be “a horrible piece of hardware.” It was not ready. There were too many defects to meet the schedule. It would take many weeks to fix.

And Apollo 8 was meant to test the lunar module in Earth orbit.

A Moment of Agility

The word agility is used a lot in modern business to describe approaches that can deliver results fast and handle change well. It’s a word that belongs to the 21st century.

But NASA in the 1960s remains an example of agility that still startles.

In the summer of 1968 and in a decision that would be remembered as an act of extraordinary vision and boldness, George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, proposed that Apollo 8 be instead sent to orbit the moon without its Lunar Module.

The risks were extraordinary.

  • This would be the first manned flight using the mighty Saturn V – a rocket that had just had its severe issues with “pogo-ing” fixed but not tested. It was a bold step indeed to use its first crewed flight to travel almost a quarter million miles to the Moon.
  • Any trip to the Moon also required intense planning and training , and the discussions had started just a few weeks before the earth orbit Apollo 7 was scheduled to fly. It was a tough schedule to meet. Would it be even possible?

Glynn Lunney, a Flight Director and one of the most important figures in NASA Mission Control during the Apollo years summarized the thought process that would typify the response of NASA senior management:

  “I went in minutes from ‘crazy’ to ‘brilliant breakthrough’, and ‘why didn’t I think of that’?”

So, the mission imagined on almost the spur of the moment rapidly gained the support of almost all NASA’s senior managers. They understood the immense morale boost it would create, and they had confidence in their vehicles. Above all, the team that had formed out of Mercury, Gemini and the early days of the Apollo program had gained immense confidence in itself. This great challenge could be met. This mission was possible. It was a Go!

Training was started in September. No public announcement was made about the real intent of the mission until November 12, less than 40 days before launch. The news of the real goal of Apollo 8 stunned and exhilarated the public. American astronauts were going to the Moon … and at Christmas.

Even those in Mission Control were shocked. John Aaron – a key figure in many flights including Apollo 13 – would think:

You’re going to do what?”


On the morning of December 21, the Apollo 8 crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – was awakened in the small hours, and given a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs.

As for Mission Control, it would operate 24×7 in three shifts, led by Flight Directors Charles Charlesworth, Glynn Lunney and Milton Windler. The atmosphere in Mission Control was intense. As Jerry Bostick remarks in the film, every thing was checked and rechecked.

“This no simulation … was for real”.

The countdown proceeded smoothly and at 7:51 AM, the four hold-down arms were released and the Saturn V moved slowly into the air, driven by many millions of pounds of thrust. It did not shake as violently as Apollo 6 and the crew were safe.

Astronaut Michael Collins was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communications) on duty on the ground and at 2 hours, 27 minutes and 22 seconds in the mission radioed,

“Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.”

TLI stands for “Trans-lunar Injection”. It gave permission to the spacecraft to leave low-Earth orbit. The engine on the third and final stage of the Saturn V fired again.

Apollo 8 was now the first manned interplanetary spacecraft. And the crew would find time to take the first pictures made by humans rather than robots of the whole planet Earth.

Reaching the Moon

As they approached the moon, the crew began to prepare for Lunar Orbit Insertion or LOI. This was a particularly tense moment. It depended on a burn of the service module engine on the far side of the Moon, when the spacecraft was alone and out of contact with Earth.

After the key members of Mission Control were polled for a “go” or “no go” decision, the crew was told that they were “go” and “riding the best bird we can find.”

Mission Control had set up two countdown clocks. If Apollo 8 regained contact at the first timing point, then no burn had happened and LOI had failed. If it regained contact at the second timing point, the burn had worked perfectly. Anything else was real trouble. The craft could be heading into solar orbit or towards impact on the lunar surface.

It was at this point that Lunney – who was the flight director on duty, said:

“Okay, all flight controllers, this is a good time to take a break.

It amazed the members of Mission Control at first, but on reflection there was nothing to be done for around 20 minutes. Some of them took advantage. Eventually, the first countdown clock expired. There was no signal. Tension in Mission Control increased. Then the second clock expired. Apollo 8 radioed at that exact point

“Houston, this is Apollo 8. Burn complete.”

The engine had performed as it should. Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon.

In Orbit

It was then that the crew could start observing another world – one of the prime purposes of the mission, and essential preparation for future landings. They would take many hundreds of photos. Jim Lovell would characterize the surface as:

“The Moon is essentially grey, no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish beach sand. “

Bill Anders would add:

“Looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time—it’s all beat up—no definition—just a lot of bumps and holes.”

These were the words of pilots and engineers. Plain, without romance. But poetry was coming.

The Genesis Reading

As Apollo 8, rounded Moon for the ninth time, they began another TV transmission. They first described the lunar surface for the people on Earth, Borman characterizing it as a “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

Then Anders said crew had a message for all on Earth. It was at that moment that each of the astronauts read a section from Genesis, about the creation of the Heaven and the Earth. It had been selected as a part of the bible with resonance across multiple religions.

“In the Beginning god created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the Deep. . . . And God saw that it was Good. . . . “

Borman ended the broadcast with:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

This was a hugely moving and unexpected experience for those in Mission Control. Flight controller Jerry Bostick later wrote:

“I was totally overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes. [What could be] more appropriate than a Bible reading about creation, coming from the first people to ever leave the influence of Earth, on Christmas Eve?”

Returning Home

The next critical moment was Trans-Earth Injection, or TEI. The service module engine needed to be restarted a second time, and perform another perfect burn. Again, that would be done behind the moon.

It worked, and Lovell reported:

  “Houston … please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.”

After the long coast back to Earth, the Apollo 8 Command module re-entered the atmosphere with the fire and dreadful violence that comes from interplanetary velocities. The deceleration peaked at around 6g, as the spacecraft met the resistance of Earth’s atmosphere.

Anders would say:

“You could see the flames and the outer skin of the spacecraft glowing; and burning, baseball-size chunks flying off behind us. It was an eerie feeling, like being a gnat inside a blowtorch flame.”

At around 10,000 feet the three main parachutes slowed the Command Module, and it splashed down south of Hawaii.

Apollo 8 – In Retrospect

In the end, Apollo 8 was a genuine and complete success. It was indeed a perfect mission. Jerry Bostick would say: “It was bold, it was exciting, and it was successful.”

 Chris Kraft – who created the very notion of Mission Control – notes in his autobiography how many historic firsts it scored. It was the:

  • First manned flight of a Saturn V
  • First manned vehicle to leave earth’s gravitation field
  • First use of a computer to provide total “onboard autonomy” in navigation
  • First manned vehicle in lunar orbit
  • First close-up view of another planet
  • First exposure to solar radiation beyond the earth’s magnetic field
  • First vehicle to rocket out of lunar orbit
  • First manned vehicle to re-enter from another planet

Perhaps the impact of the Mission is best summarized by a telegram sent to Borman by an unknown citizen that stated:

“Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Apollo 8 as an Example of Leadership

Apollo 8 of course is also extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership and remarkable teamwork.

Coming less than two years after the Apollo 1 fire which could have halted the program, it represents true both organisational resilience and the genuine acceptance of accountability. NASA were truly “tough and competent”.

It demonstrates adaptability, creativity and agility. Apollo 8 was meant to be an Earth orbit mission. The bold and courageous mission that replaced that original intent probably shortened the path to the Moon. It was a decision made quickly and decisively.

It demonstrates the high performing team at the heart of NASA and Mission Control – who were able to create a new and complex mission plan for humanity’s first mission to another world in a matter of weeks.

Apollo 8 was also a remarkable moment in communications, in PR and marketing. At the end of a deeply troubled year, its success bound together humanity for a moment.

In summary, Apollo 8 is a perfect example of the power of vision and imagination, followed by perfect execution.

And it happened at Christmas.

Keith Haviland

This article is an extended version of an article first published in 2014. Many thanks for David Woods for insight into the Apollo 6 launch.

Keith Haviland is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. He is also a film producer and CEO of Haviland Digital – dedicated to intelligent film, TV and Digital Media.

Lost on Mars – Christmas 2003

Christmas Day 2003 was meant to be a special day for the exploration of Mars, and for a charismatic scientist named Colin Pillinger. In the end, it was the key moment of a story that involves loss and rediscovery, innovation, lessons around program management and flawed but inspirational leadership.

A probe called Beagle 2 – christened after the ship that supported Darwin’s famous voyage of exploration – was intended to land on the Martian surface in the small hours of Christmas morning, UK time.

Its destination was Isidis Planitia, a vast impact basin that sits across the border between the ancient highlands and the northern plains of the Red Planet.

Beagle 2 was a low-cost, small-scale and minimalist British spacecraft. It had, however, audacious goals to directly search for life. Colin Pillinger was its Principle Investigator.

After piggybacking across tens of millions of miles of empty space, the craft had detached from its mother ship, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express, on 19th December 2003 where it would fall towards Mars on a relentless ballistic trajectory.

A Violent Landing

mars-express_beagle_art_atmosphereentry_1600x1078The plan was this. Beagle 2 would slam into the Martin atmosphere at 20,000 km/hour. After a violent deceleration in the Martian atmosphere, parachutes were to deploy. Then just two hundred meters above the Martian landscape, large airbags would inflate to cushion the final impact of the vehicle. The lander would bounce on the surface at about 02:45 UT on 25 December 2003, and come to a stop.

At that point the top of the lander would peal open, pushing out four solar panels. A signal would then be sent to Earth immediately after landing and another the next Martian day to confirm that Beagle 2 had survived both the landing and its first lonely and cold night on Mars.

That was a prelude to the real science. A panoramic image of the landing area would later be taken using the stereo camera. The lander arm was to dig up soil samples for analysis, and a probe nicknamed the mole would inch its way across the surface. Beagle 2 would begin to make its contribution to history.

No Signal

It didn’t happen that way of course. Instead on that Christmas Morning, there was a cold, distant silence.

A search begun. Throughout January and February, Mars Express, the American orbiter Mars Odyssey, even the great Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank would attempt to pick up a signal from Beagle 2. Throughout the Beagle team said they were “still hopeful” of finding a successful signal.

But every time there was no such signal, no sign of the little craft.

The Beagle 2 Management Board declared beagle 2 lost on 6th February 2004. On 11 February, ESA announced an inquiry would be held into the failure of the mission. The results of that enquiry would prove to be highly critical.


Beagle_2_e_Colin_PillingerThe voyage of Beagle 2 started within the Open University – a British distance learning institution created in the 1960s. Its scientists have been major contributors to the study of a group of meteorites blown off the surface of Mars and the suitability of the ancient Martian environment for life.

In 1997 ESA announced Mission Express with a 2003 launch date. It was then that Colin Pillinger of the Open University team, and a member of the ESA Exobiology Study Group, proposed a lander. The craft would be dedicated to looking for life and conducting chemical analysis of the Martian environment. The name Beagle 2 arose quickly, and Colin himself gave the rationale:

“HMS Beagle was the ship that took Darwin on his voyage around the world in the 1830s and led to our knowledge about life on Earth making a real quantum leap. We hope Beagle 2 will do the same thing for life on Mars.”

The journey had started.

A Very British Eccentric

Colin Pillinger was a larger-than-life figure, and had cast himself from the mould of the archetypal British eccentric scientist. He lived on a farm and possessed “mutton-chop” whiskers that always made him instantly recognizable. Personally, he could be challenging. Professor David Southwood of Imperial College would say:

“My own relationship with him in the Beagle years was stormy … Fitting the much bigger Mars Express project, as I had to, around Colin’s far from standard approach was not easy and he could be very exasperating. Nonetheless, he had genius, a very British genius”.

He could also be inspiring and inspirational. Professor Monica Grady was once one of Pillinger’s PhD student. She would say:

“He was a determined and controversial figure. I crossed swords with him more than once in the 35 years I have known him. But he was enthusiastic, inspirational and never failing in his drive to promote planetary sciences and the science that would come from missions to the moon and Mars. He was one of the most influential people in my life.”

He and his team certainly had a flair for grabbing attention. To put the Beagle 2 project on the map and get financial support, they got the band blur to record mission’s call-sign was composed by the band Blur. The calibration target plate intended for testing Beagle 2’s cameras and spectrometers after landing was painted by Damien Hirst.

Pillinger raised sufficient funds to attempt the mission – although funding was always very light by international standards. A consortium was created to build the probe across the Open University, the Universities of Leicester and Wales, Astrium, Martin-Baker, Logica and SCISYS.

Mars Express launched from Baikonur on 2 June 2003, and on it sat its little disk-shaped companion: Beagle 2.

Analysis of the Failure

In May 2004 the findings of the ESA report were published in the form of 19 recommendations, many of which speak about issues that will be familiar to any student of program management.

It could – and certainly was – read as an indictment of Colin Pillinger’s leadership and management style. The Telegraph newspaper would say the report:

“is believed to criticize the management of the project and blame a lack of testing, time and money for its failure. While he is not named directly, the report is likely to be seen as critical of Professor Colin Pillinger … even before the probe left for Mars … critics of Prof Pillinger warned that Beagle 2 had not been adequately tested”

There were recommendations that covered accountability, and adequate resourcing. Others mentioned the need for appropriate systems level documentation and robust margins to cope with the inherent uncertainties of space flight.

There was also an underlying assumption that Beagle 2 had failed catastrophically. So many of the recommendations covered testing of all kinds, and especially the shocks and processes around entry and landing.

But the truth was that Beagle 2’s fate was a mystery. The probe – without landing telemetry – had simply vanished.


Colin Pillinger continued to display his usual spirit after the report. He said shortly after publication “It isn’t over with Beagle by any means.” He continued to push for another landing attempt, but unsuccessfully.

Then tragically, after a period of ill health, he died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage, just two days before his 71st birthday at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge on 7 May 2014.

The obituaries were respectful. Just getting Beagle 2 started was seen as an achievement, and many gave him the credit for rekindling British interest in space and space flight.

But he died not knowing what had happened to the spacecraft he had conceived and build.

History is Rewritten


But then history was rewritten.

On 16 January 2015, it was announced that the lander had been located intact on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in the expected landing area within Isidis Planitia. The images had been taken in 2013, but not analyzed until after Pillinger’s death.

The images demonstrated the probed had properly landed and partially deployed, with its parachute and back cover nearby. Some of the solar panel petals had deployed, but not all, preventing deployment of its radio antenna. Beagle 2 appeared to have just a few mechanical movements and one faulty motor from success.

One newspaper claimed:

The history books must be re-written to show that the Beagle 2 mission was a success after the first pictures of the probe proved that it did land safely on Mars, vindicating lead scientist Colin Pillinger.

Dr David Parker, then CEO of the UK Space Agency would comment:

“Beagle 2 was much more of a success than we previously knew. The history books need to be slightly rewritten to say that Beagle 2 did land on Christmas Day 2003.”


In the final analysis, Beagle 2 was a most peculiar space mission – created by a British eccentric and funded poorly. It was also perhaps poorly program managed.

However it was genuinely inspirational, becoming a project that touched people’s hearts and minds. There is no doubt it failed, but we now know  it also came within moments of absolute, joyous triumph. This little, underfunded craft almost worked. As Colin Pillinger himself once said

A little set back like a lost lander should not discourage visionaries.

Images used in this article are from ESA and NASA.

Keith Haviland is a business and digital technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.  Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Failure is an Option

Things will always go wrong, but excellent preparation and strong leadership can turn failure into a kind of success.

The story of Apollo13 is a parable of gritty resolve, technology excellence, calm heroism and teamwork. For anyone focused on leadership, operations and program management it is absolutely the purest of inspirations.

The film of Apollo 13 centres around the phrase Failure is Not an Option,” invented post the original drama in a conversation between Jerry Bostick – one of the great Apollo flight controllers – and the filmmakers. It summarises a key part of the culture of Apollo era NASA, and it has found its way onto the walls or desks of many a leader’s office. It is part of the DNA of modern business culture, and of any sizeable delivery project.

Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module
Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module

Lessons from the Space Program

But one of the reasons that the crew was recovered was this: throughout its history, NASA and mission control knew that failure was precisely an option, and they designed, built and tested to deal with that simple truth. The spacecraft systems had – where physically possible – redundancy. The use of a Lunar Module as a lifeboat had already been examined and analyzed before Apollo 13. In the end, a old manufacturing defect caused an electrical failure with almost catastrophic consequences. It was precisely because Mission Control was used to dealing with issues that Apollo 13 became what has been called a “successful failure” and “NASA’s finest hour.”

The ability to respond like this was hard earned. The Gemini program – sandwiched between the first tentative manned flights of Mercury, and the Apollo program that got to the moon – was designed to test the technologies and control mechanisms needed for deep space. It was a very deliberate series of steps. Almost everything that could go wrong did: fuel cells broke, an errant thruster meant that Gemini 8 was almost lost, rendezvous and docking took many attempts to get right and space walks (EVAs in NASA speak) proved much harder than anybody was expecting. And then the Apollo 1 fire – where three astronauts were actually lost on the launch pad – created a period of deep introspection, followed by much redesign and learning. In 18 months, the spacecraft was fundamentally re-engineered. The final step towards Apollo was the hardest.

But, after less than a decade of hard, hard work – NASA systems worked at a standard almost unique in human achievement.

So, with near infinite planning and rehearsal, NASA could handle issues and error with a speed and a confidence that is still remarkable. Through preparation, failure could be turned into success.

Challenges of a Life More Ordinary

All of us have faced challenges of a lesser kind in our careers. I was once responsible for a major software platform that showed real, but occasional and obscure issues the moment it went into production, expensively tested. We put together an extraordinary SWAT team. The problem seemed to be data driven, and software related and simply embarrassing. I nick-named it Freddie, after the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It turned out to be a physical issue in wiring – which was hugely surprising and easily fixed. The software platform worked perfectly once that was resolved.

Another example: In the early days of Accenture’s India delivery centres, we had planned for redundancy and were using two major cables for data to and from the US and Europe. But although they were many kilometres apart, both went through the Mediterranean. A mighty Algerian earthquake brought great sadness to North Africa, and broke both cables. We scrambled, improvised, maintained client services, and then bought additional capacity in the Pacific. We now had a network on which the sun never set. It was a lesson in what resilience and risk management really means.

Soon enough, and much more often than not, we learnt to handle most failures and problems with fluency.  In the Accenture Global Delivery network we developed tiered recovery plans that could handle challenges with individual projects, buildings, and cities. So we were able to handle problems that – at scale – happen frequently. These included transport issues, point technology failures, political actions and much more – all without missing a single beat. Our two priorities were firstly people’s safety and well being,  and secondly client service, always in that order.

Technology – New Tools and New Risks

As technology develops, there are new tools but also new risks. On the benefit side, the Cloud brings tremendous, generally reliable compute power at increasingly low cost. Someone else has thought through service levels and availability, and invested in gigantic industrialized data centres. The cloud’s elasticity also allows smart users to side step common capacity issues during peak usage. These are huge benefits we have only just started to understand.

But even the most reliable of cloud services will suffer rare failures, and at some point a major front-page incident is inevitable. The world of hybrid clouds also brings new points of integration, and interfaces are where things often break. And agile, continuous delivery approaches means that the work of different teams must often come together quickly and – hopefully – reliably.

The recent Sony incident shows – in hugely dramatic ways – the particular risks around security and data. Our technology model has moved from programs on computers to services running in a hybrid and open world of Web and data centre. The Web reflects the overall personality of the human race – light and dark – and we have only just begun to see the long-term consequences of that in digital commerce.

Turning Failures into Success

What follows is my own summary view of those key steps required to handle the inevitably of challenges and problems. It is necessarily short.

1. Develop a Delivery Culture – Based on accountability, competence and a desire for peerless delivery and client service. Above all, there needs to be an acknowledgement that leadership and management are about both vision and managing and avoiding issues. Create plans, and then be prepared to manage the issues.

2. Understand Your Responsibilities – They will always be greater in number that you think. Some of them are general, often obvious and enshrined in law – if you employ people, handle data about humans, work in the US, work in Europe, work in India and work across borders you are surrounded by regulations. Equally importantly, the expectations with your business users or clients need to be set and mutually understood – there are many problems caused by costing one service level, and selling another. Solving a service problem might take hours or days. Solving a problem with expectations and contracts may be the work of months and years.

3. Architect and Design – Business processes and use cases (and indeed users!) need to account for failure modes. The design for technical architectures must acknowledge and deal with component and service failures – and they must be able to recover. As discussed above, cloud services can solve resilience issues by offering the benefits of large-scale, industrialised supply, but they also bring new risks around integration between old and new. Cloud brings new management challenges.

4. Automate – Automation (properly designed, properly tested) can be your friend. Automated recovery and security scripts are much less error prone than those done by people under stress. There are many automated tools and services that can help test and assess your security environment. Automated configuration management brings formal traceability – essential for the highest levels of reliability. Automated regression testing is a great tool to reduce the costs of testing in the longer term.

5. Test – Test for failure modes in both software and business process. Test at points of integration. Test around service and service failures. Test at, and beyond, a system’s capacity limits. Test security. Test recovery. Test testing.

6. Plan for Problems – Introduce a relevant level of risk management. Create plans for business continuity across technology systems and business processes. Understand what happens if a system fails, but also what happens if your team can’t get to the office, or a client declares a security issue.

7. Rehearse Invest in regular rehearsals of problem handling and recovery. Include a robust process for debriefing.

8. Anticipate and Gather Intelligence – For any undertaking of significance, understand potential issues and risks. Larger organisations will need to understand emerging security issues – from the small, technical and specific to more abstract global threats. Truly global organisations will need to sometimes understand patterns of weather – for example: to determine if transport systems are at threat. (I even once developed personal expertise in seismic science and volcanism.)

9. Respond – But finally acknowledge that there will be major issues that will happen, and such issues will often be unexpected. So, a team must focus on:

  • Simply accepting accountability, focusing on resolution and accepting the short-term personal consequences. It is what you are paid for.
  • Setting-up a management structure for the crisis, and trigger relevant business continuity plans
  • Setting up an expert SWAT team, including what is needed from suppliers.
  • How to report diagnosis and resolution – be accurate, be simple, avoid false optimism and be frequent
  • How to communicate with stakeholders in a way that balances information flow and the need for a core team to focus on resolution
  • How to handle media, if you are providing a public service
  • And after the problem is solved and the coffee machine is temporarily retired, how does the team learn

And finally a Toast …

In previous articles, I have acknowledged the Masters of Delivery I have come across in my varied career.

In this domain covered by this article, I have worked with people in roles such as“Global Asset Protection”, “Chief Information Security Officer” and teams across the world responsible for business continuity, security and engineering reliable cloud services. They work on the kind of activity that often goes unacknowledged when things go well – but in the emerging distributed and open future technology world, they are all essential. To me, these are unsung “Masters of Delivery.” Given this is the start of 2015, let’s raise a virtual glass in celebration of their work. We all benefit by it.

Keith Haviland

This is a longer version of an article originally posted on linkedin.  Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Interstellar Review: A Brave, Imperfect, Beautiful and Exciting Movie

**Warning: mild-spoilers ahead **

What to make of Christopher Nolan’s new Science Fiction epic Interstellar?

This is a film that has been eagerly anticipated, and whose trailers have been filled with strong space imagery, and a sense of mythic grandeur and aspiration. There is, in my view, an intense and general desire for intelligent science fiction beyond the superhero format, and many hoped that Interstellar would provide just that. It has both an A-list director, and an A-list cast of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithglow and Matt Damon. (The idea of Michael Caine running NASA is almost worth the price of an entry ticket in itself.)

However, some of the science reaction has already been negative, and the science indeed creaks at times. At a few moments in the film, there is too much artificial technical explanation, rather like some episodes of Star Trek. As Kubrick showed in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, much admired by Nolan, less is more – especially when events are caused by the gift of advanced alien technology.

There are some moments that are simply inexplicable – such as when the wall of a board style meeting room lifts and reveals a rocket launch pad feet away, and shouts film-set.  It also takes a two-stage rocket launcher to get one of the film’s shuttlecraft into Earth orbit, but the same type of craft is able to lift off by itself from a planet of 1.3g. The distant solar system that they reach through a wormhole is clearly exotic, but unclear – I suspect there was a design for the system that was not explained in the final version of the script. There is a black hole there, a neutron star is mentioned in passing, and the presumably stellar source of light and heat for the planets is not mentioned. The real gravitational and tidal effects of a black hole are understated. The renowned scientist and science writer Phil Plait wrote a very good review (see here) that reveals this class of defect in fine detail, although as we shall see I reach very different conclusions about the movie.

And the plot and characterization sometimes creak as well.  The film tries to be grand and laden with meaning at many levels – which negative reviewers find pompous. There is a section with Matt Damon as a rogue and cowardly astronaut that for me doesn’t sufficiently suspend disbelief at the human level, even before we think about the science, to really work. Would a man alone for a decade turn on his rescuers so quickly? This is ultimately an issue with this part of the script, rather than the actors who generally do well.

But, although the film is flawed enough that I came close to losing my hope and belief at one point, at the closing credits I felt that I had seen an imaginative, rich and ultimately terrific movie – especially since the last third is a strong spectacle, and a good piece of story telling. The film moves through new ideas at a blistering pace, and ideas that range across a very broad spectrum of cinematic technical excellence, visual appeal, science and story telling. It finishes dramatically, grandly and – it must be said – sentimentally. It bravely plays with concepts related to black holes, relativity and gravity – event horizons, time dilation, singularities, and accretion disks are not common features in big movies. Although it does this in a ramshackle manner, Chris Nolan and team deserve a loud round of applause for trying such ideas in a large-scale film project.

Visually the film is superb and creates a vocabulary for representing space and space flight that both convinces and pays homage to past glories of spaceflight and Science Fiction film. There are scenes that are based on the Apollo era Saturn V launch footage, and the staging footage recovered from film canisters held inside those great rockets of the Moon Age. There are flight sequences reminiscent of real film of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. There is an excellent, somewhat theatrical representation of time travel that echoes the weightless scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where HAL is turned off. 2001 is also directly quoted in scenes where an interior and noisy point of view shifts to a silent exterior view of the film’s space hardware, echoing the quite grace and balletic pace of Kubrick’s masterpiece. And it is visually quoted again in the journey through the wormhole – very like the last “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001 – and the recreation of a black hole that is lit by the brilliance of its accretion disk.

Before that, however, the film starts on Terra Firma with the conjuring of a troubled future world, and a troubled America, through the recreation of an idealized Eisenhower era – like the worlds glimpsed in Astronaut Farmer or Field of Dreams. This is a place of strange dust storms and dying plants. It is also a place of infinite cornfields, a wooden family farmhouse and baseball.

It is where we learn about the character of the hero Cooper (played well by Matthew McConaughey) – a feisty, tough, independent ex-astronaut now turned corn-farmer who “was born 40 years too late, or 40 years too early” in a community that sees itself as “the caretaker generation.” This part of the film establishes his relationship with his daughter Murphy, a relationship that will span more than a century of Earth time and links the various elements of the film. This primary arc reminded me – since it is in the end redemptive, strongly sentimental, and plays with love, time and outcomes – of a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a film I adore, so I have to admit I enjoyed the main Interstellar arc, and its inevitable uplifting ending, immensely.

The centre of the film consists of a tour of wonderfully imagined – and often scientifically dubious – strange worlds that is similar to the kind of planetary treks found in 1950s pulp science fiction. I was reminded of early works by Robert Heinlein, and James Blish. There is even a robot with a human-like personality, and a strong, tunable sense of irony. The special effects create a strong feeling of reality, and these alien worlds are very believable, even when you find yourself questioning the science.

Interstellar ends with a long and genuinely gripping sequence that is fast paced and intensely dramatic as astronaut Cooper first docks with a damaged and rapidly spinning spacecraft, and stabilizes it – a sequence possibly influenced by Neil Armstrong’s success in stopping a rotating capsule on Gemini 8. Cooper’s craft then falls into a black hole, and Cooper is placed in a kind of time tunnel by unseen and distant descendents of humanity, which becomes the device that facilitates the dénouement of the movie. Strangely enough, although this is one of the most fantastical parts of the film, it works well. The ability to influence the past is presented as a that momentary gift, a mystery created by superior intelligences, rather the alien monoliths in 2001.

In summary, Interstellar is a brave, not always successful, attempt to create a thrilling science fiction epic with greater intelligence than most. It is a beautiful movie. It brims full with images culled from fifty years of actual space flight and other Science Fiction movies that are integrated into a convincing and inspiring vision. It also bubbles over with ideas and concepts that sometimes work well, and sometimes stumble. It is an inspiring, exciting, beautiful and imperfect film that I would strongly recommend seeing, with something of an open heart.

Interstellar also represents something of the current zeitgeist – where science and technology are more valued, and some people are rediscovering the wonder of space flight. There is unsatisfied demand for intelligent science fiction, and films that genuinely take us to new places in the grandest sense. Hopefully, Interstellar will encourage others to raise their eyes to the skies above.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Writings from Keith Haviland