Problem-solving for the Apollo 11 mission

Problem-solving for the Apollo 11 mission

In a speech delivered to Congress on 25 May 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged his country with the words “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”.  One day later, on 26 May, the National Space Council did not suit up an astronaut.  Instead, their first goal was to hit the moon.  Literally.  

Three years after Kennedy’s visionary speech, NASA successfully smashed Ranger 7 into the moon.  Ranger 7 was principally built to take high-resolution photographs of the moon before impacting the lunar surface. And then it took fifteen iterations before the world saw the gentle moon landing by the crew of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. 

The history of this mission illustrates that great scientists, creative thinkers and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. They do not waste energy fighting with the full complexity.  Instead, they try to deal with fragments of the complexity and this will teach them how to deal with the full complexity.  They first create a simpler problem that they can solve.  They resolve that easier issue thoroughly and then they study that simple scenario with laser focus.  Those insights often point the way to the solution of the original difficult problem. 

You can perfectly apply this mindset to your work.  When faced with a difficult issue or challenge, focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve.  There is a high chance that the deep work you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue.  So do not jump immediately into the full complexity.  First just try to hit the moon.  Walking on its surface is for another day.  

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