Maria Musgrove compares the current situation we are in to that faced by the astronauts manning Apollo 13. Fast and thorough action is what saved them, she says, and we need to learn from that
“Houston, we’ve had a problem” were the words used to report the explosion aboard Apollo 13. Since then, the erroneous phrase ‘Houston, we have a problem’ has been in use to express the emergence of an unforeseen problem. Astronauts Swigert, Haise and Lovell would use the same phrase today to describe Covid-19, perhaps with an expletive added before the word problem!
This year, 17th April marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13’s safe return to earth after what was intended to be NASA’s third moon-landing mission. The craft launched from Kennedy Space Center on 11th April 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module failed two days into the mission.
Because of the explosion, the crew orbited the moon instead and pointed the spacecraft back home to earth. However, they encountered a cascade of problems, all with life-threatening consequences. The Apollo 13 crew and staff tackled these problems with incredible agility and accountability, ultimately landing the three astronauts back on earth safely.
Historic events like this teach us a great deal about how to remain agile in a crisis and how resilience wins out.
The article I researched suggests that, as leaders, we can use this time to pause, look at the bigger picture and innovate solutions to problems that may at first appear insolvable.
The main step in remaining agile and taking accountability for success is the willingness to see reality. On a space mission, any issue is a matter of life or death. When the Apollo 13 oxygen tank blew, the first step was to calculate the distance between earth and the point in the spaceship’s journey when critical resources would run out.
Mission Control quickly assessed the amount of each essential needed for the crew to make it back alive – water, power, and reducing carbon dioxide being the main concerns.
Details like these are critical; without this level of clarity, it’s impossible to know exactly what problems need to be solved. What they discovered was horrifying: the failing Command Module couldn’t support the crew’s return.
Recognising the likeness
It takes courage to acknowledge the reality of a crisis. If we’re to come through the current situation we need to be accepting of what happened and not be in denial. Looking at the Reactive Change Model, opposite. I bet Mission Control and crew didn’t sit around at shock/denial/paralysis saying: “I don’t believe it/We haven’t got a clue what to do/It can’t have happened again/13 is an unlucky number, we’re doomed”.
If we’re anywhere in the red zone on the change curve we won’t be able to see reality as we may still be in denial, feeling helpless, angry and/or hurt (understandable emotions but can be debilitating). We need to work out where we are on the change curve with regard to Covid 19 and how it will affect our business:
The quicker we’re able to move from the red zone to green, the better. Resilient people get the anger and hurt out of the way but some people get stuck at the bottom at ‘Healing’ for too long and play the ‘Poor Me, Woe is Me’ card instead of moving forward, and love to wallow in self-pity. Just look at some of the posts on the numerous forums and it’s easy to pinpoint who is where on this curve by what they say and how they’re saying it!
To move up to the green part of the curve we need to be prepared to see the full scope of a situation and be quick to respond to major issues that arise. In our Covid-19 disrupted world, it’s important to look at what priorities have shifted to keep our business on track to achieving results. I’ll share what my priorities are and my plans as to how I’ll deal with them.
• Priority number one before we closed was to communicate with brides and get any outstanding balances. In my two boutiques, by taking the decision to close three days before lockdown, it meant that this was easier to achieve as brides could pay by card if they wanted and we had all of their details (we still run a paper system apart from diary management).
• My next priority is to keep in touch with brides and my team (even though they’re all furloughed). All emails are being answered and I have a weekly zoom call with my managers and we’ve set up a fun WhatsApp group to stay connected and that includes our self-employed seamstresses. Not rocket science (excuse the pun) but effective.
• A huge priority is juggling money (what little we have as we all know that our retail bridal model is based on deposits paying the running costs and balances paying the gown invoices).At the time of writing I’m in receipt of one of the business grants so I’m in a better position to know what funds I have and I will be contacting my suppliers to negotiate payment terms.
• Next priority is agreeing with my team how we can, in a close contact business, safely conduct appointments. We’ll be ordering masks, visors, gloves and sanitisers when they are available and when we’re not compromising the NHS.
We’ll be further investigating how long the coronavirus could stay on fabric and the implications that has for new bridal appointments. It may mean that we can only take one appointment a day, need to limit the number of people at an appointment (no hardship there!), and provide masks, visors and gloves for the bride (can you imagine?).
And of course we need to ascertain what this is going to cost and what our charges may have to be.
Low on my priority list is setting up virtual appointments as I see it fraught with problems – ie return of gowns, charging for gowns, cleaning of gowns etc. I’d be up for looking at doing an initial virtual consultation with a bride to build a relationship ready for when she comes into the boutique.
Way down as a priority is even thinking about looking at and investing in new season’s collections. I applaud the brands that are doing virtual catwalks but for me it’s just
not a priority.
Survival is my number one priority as I’m sure it was for those astronauts on Apollo 13. I bet they weren’t going to get distracted by thoughts of their next mission, what’s for dinner or the interviews they would be having upon their return.
When it became clear that they would have to abandon the Command Module for the Lunar Module they asked: “What else can I do?” and quickly designed a supplementary carbon dioxide removal system following instructions from Mission Control. What was even more amazing was that the astronauts had only one hour to build the device out of plastic bags, cardboard, parts from a lunar suit and a lot of tape.
Covid-19 is about crisis and change and was best summed up by President Kennedy in 1959, who said:
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
In times of crisis, the question “What else can I do?” is not about doing more but about shifting the way we think and act to achieve the result. I challenge you to view this as opportunity and move up the change curve and set some new goals. We’re setting up Bridal Live in our two boutiques as this can be classed as training for my furloughed teams.
On a personal level I’m working hard on re-launching the online training membership site Get Savvy and adding Bridal Stylist Sales training to the offer.
Maria Musgrove-Wethey is director of The Pantiles Bride and Go Bridal in Tunbridge Wells. In March this year she and Chrisitne Skilton launched their new venture Get Savvy with the aim of unlocking the secrets of successful bridal boutiques.
Get Savvy is a members-only group offering online training and consultancy that can be accessed anywhere and at any time. Whether you’re starting up, selling up or fed up or somewhere in between then join the group as it’s the 2020 way of working on your business rather than in your business. Coming soon online is Bridal Stylist Sales Training, too. To find out more either email
firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the link to join the waiting list.