Adapted from the book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need. (2016). Dave Fleming. A Tribal Alchemy Resource.
We’ve got to figure out a way to put a square peg in a round hole.
Deep into the Apollo 13 crisis, this iconic mandate was given to a group of NASA engineers. After the initial explosion and mechanical failures, a new threat emerged. The astronauts were in peril due to their own exhalations. They were running out of CO2 canisters (that collected the gas) for the lunar module. The command module CO2 canisters were available for use, but with one small problem. The command module connector was square and the lunar module connector was—wait for it— round. Of course it was. Systems experts known as the “Tiger Team” had 24 hours to construct the square-peg-into-round-hole filtration system. Since there was no way to shuttle new parts to the ship, the engineers on the ground had to design a filter using only the materials already on board the spacecraft.
As depicted in the movie Apollo 13, the Tiger Team dumped the available materials on a table with these instructions: “The people upstairs have given us this one and we have to come through. We’ve got to find a way to make this (holding up a square canister) fit into the hole of this (holding up a round canister) using nothing but that (pointing to the materials on the table).” The final moment of the scene shows the team members organizing their raw materials. You can hear one member say, “Okay, let’s build a filter.” They did, build a filter, and kept the astronauts breathing long enough to get home.
There it is, Tribal Alchemy in action. The Tiger Team ingeniously arranged their raw materials, including the challenge itself, to accomplish their objective. Instead of succumbing to defeatist attitudes or actions, they combined raw materials in a way that led to a creative solution. Instead of watching a disaster unfold, they created an inventive solution at just the right time. Ed Smylie, the leader of the NASA Tiger Team, reflected in a 2005 Associated Press story, “Apollo 13 turned out to be one of the space program’s proudest moments. What could have been a horrible disaster turned out to be a great achievement.” The most important word in Smylie’s statement is “turned.” The disaster “turned out” a certain way because the Tiger Team “turned” (transformed) their raw materials into a creative solution.
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