Monday, January 29, 2007

Words of engagement

Literally hundreds of people have clicked through from the New Scientist's space blog to my piece on the Apollo 1 fire which is very gratifying. But of course, the main thrust of this blog is meant to be about organisational communication, so I've been looking for a link that brings the space programme and organisational/employee/internal communication together. And of course, there is a great example.

When President Kennedy stated to Congress in 1961 that America's intention was to send a man to the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade, he gave the clearest message possible to everyone involved in the space programme. From Mercury, through Gemini to Apollo, the US now had a clear route to the moon.

Over 400,000 people working in every aspect of the programme were engaged in achieving a tangible goal with a defined deadline. It was going to be hard; there would be immense problems along the way, and in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire, it looked as though the programme would fail.

But it didn't. People pulled together with a passion, dedication and tenacity not really seen in any single human endeavour since. The clear message was turned into outstanding success. The message was translated into activity for almost half a million people. Their collective effort put Armstrong, aldrin and the rest on the moon.

However, the Apollo 11 moon landing became an end-point not merely a milestone in the progress of the exploration of space. 38 years on, we've advanced little from that end point since no subsequent president has taken up and built on Kennedy's objective.

How often does that happen in our own business lives? How often do we rally to the call, only to see momentum lost as time goes by. We need the big goals - something tangible to reach. But once we get there, we need another. As soon as the goalposts stop moving, we begin to move back.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Apollo 1 fire: 40 years today

As I recall a few entries below, and on the New Scientist Space blog's most recent entry, today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. Three lives were lost that date, but their loss led to 12 men walking on the moon between 1969 and 1972.

For me, 40 years is almost a lifetime ago - I was not quite three years old when the accident occurred. But those Apollo missions stirred an interest in space exploration that has remained with me ever since.

It will be a sombre day at Kennedy today, with a special service to reflect on the lives, the bravery and the ultimate sacrifice of Chaffee, White and Grissom. The following weeks bring more anniversaries - Komorov, the first Russian to lose his life in the space race and, of course, the first Shuttle disaster.

But no exploration is without risk. I just with we'd fully drive for the rewards that exploration beyond our world will bring, rather than always putting political expediency above the sheer exhaustion of doing something completely new, extremely difficult and making a success of it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Course: From Output to Outcome

I'll be running the latest version of my output to outcome course in London on March 20. It'll be hosted by CiB, so the delegate price is extremely reasonable.

Last time the course - which is very interactive - ran, it picked up a lot of very favourable comment from a blend of internal communication professionals ranging from less than a year's experience to a whole career in the IC game.

I'm looking forward to meeting the next group for what I'm sure will be a totally different, though - I hope - just as successful event this time round.

New Scientist - here's hoping

It's now just two days until the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire - I'm hoping that my piece on it will feature on the New Scientist space blog. Even if it doesn't it's a blog well worth checking out.

Meanwhile, today I've received my personal tax bill for the year, my corporate tax bill for the year, a bill from my accountant and one from my book keeper - while also arranging my quarterly VAT payment.

No wonder this is officially classified as the most miserable time of the year! I feel poor, very poor..... so I'd better go and do some work.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Digging a tunnel

The escape is on. I'm finally out of contract and heading away from AOL for my web and email needs.

Cost and their desire to clog up my PC with tiresome proprietary software made the decision an easy one. My new BT hub's installed and, while BT has a few drawbacks of its own, it'll suffice for what I need.

Getting out of AOL wasn't, of course, easy. First, it's not at all clear on their website what you have to do to cancel your account. Finally, after going in circles a few times, I tracked down what I needed to know.

The guidance told me I could cancel by email although it would take longer than the phone. Fair enough, but I've a lot of BAD experience of hanging around on a premium charge line waiting for AOL's call centre inmates to get to me. So email it was.

Two days later I got an email reply telling me I'd have to call their premium rate number to get my migration code....... The email said I could call anytime from 7am to midnight. I read it shortly before midnight so picked up the phone.....Only to find out that AOL's account cancellation team was open only 'til 9pm.

Next day I called, sidestepped the flannel, and cancelled. I got my MAC and set up with BT - £10 a month cheaper, a £50 cashback - and soothing voicetexts with the voice of Tom Baker telling my my hub was on the way.

I'm set up now, keep hitting the wrong buttons on explorer and am rapidly dumping AOL applications from the PC. Email's a bit quiet - for some reason my company 'cover' email hasn't yet pointed at my new BT address, and I'm sure some people have ignored my reminder and are still mailing AOL.

Still, there's light at the end of the tunnel....I just hope it's not an express train heading this way!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Change management gives evolution a bad name

Back in 1989 when I first got into corporate communications, I joined an organisation that had just merged with another. Both had grown through mergers and acquisitions, but by merging together they'd leaped into the major league in their sector.

Part of the post-merger activity was to bring together their insurance operations under one roof with a single set of processes. Given that this was long before intranets - even e-mail was in its infancy - there was a lot more face-to-face communication around the work. I was assigned to a team that brought together workers from both insurance teams to work out the way forward. We met regularly, helped team managers identify and communicate all the key messages around the decisions being made; helped work all the feedback into the ongoing decision making process and generally helped the two old organisations evolve into a new one.

That was my first exposure to change management. But you know what? No-one called it change management then, and somehow I think we managed just as well - if not better - than if we'd built this up into anything other than evolving business as usual.

The project delivered big changes: Insurance work went from four locations to one. Staff at three locations were either reassigned; moved to the new insurance 'home' or left the business. More so, a new culture and new way of working emerged which had a large effect on the way the rest of the business operated. Yet there were no external consultants involved. No over-use of microsoft project manager, no parachuted-in specialist team continually compiling traffic light reports rather than making change happen. There was process, there were people assigned to specific tasks and there was tangible change. But somehow, it felt organic. It was an improvement to the efficiency of the business created from within the business and delivered by and for the people working directly in the function. This was two businesses coming together: it was revolution but felt like evolution.

Such a project wouldn't happen today. 18 years on we'd have external experts, an internal change management team and all the aspects of the cottage industry that has sprung up turning every internal evolution into 'major change'. It keeps lots of consultants in business - but have we lost the confidence to let people within an organisation find the best way to move it forward?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It took a fire to put man on the moon

Last year I researched the Apollo 1 fire - here's the link-through piece with appeared on the New Scientist's Space blog

Apollo 204: how a fatal fire put a man on the moon

“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit! We’ve got a bad fire....get us out. We’re burning up....”

On January 27, 1967 the crew of the first planned Apollo mission was in Command Module (CSM) 012 on Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, running through a standard ‘plugs out test’ . With a month still to their launch date, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee faced a routine rehearsal for their Apollo ‘shake down’ mission. But as testing neared its conclusion, an electrical arc caused a flash fire in the capsule. Within seconds, the astronauts were dead.

North American Aviation technician Steve Clemmons had been monitoring the oxygen feed into the spacecraft from the Clean Room on the top floor of the gantry tower. “The astronauts had been in the capsule for over five hours and tempers were a little frayed. There had been problems all through the test. Testing was on hold and we could tell by Grissom’s scuffling inside the craft that he was agitated.

“The final test called for the Astronauts to declare an emergency, so we weren’t surprised when we heard: ‘Fire, we’ve got a fire in here.’ I looked over toward a colleague, Jim Gleaves. He could see that this wasn’t a test. Shocked, he yelled: ‘Let’s get the men out’ as he and Don Babbitt, the pad leader, followed by Jerry Hawkins, rushed out on the swing arm that led to the White Room surrounding the entrance hatch of the capsule.

“I looked up at the nearest capsule window. It had turned bright orange. Then I realised that we had a real fire on our hands. The Spacecraft ruptured several seconds later and secondary fires broke out on both levels.”

Frantic fight

Clemmons and his colleagues fought frantically through flames and acrid smoke to get to the CSM’s hatches and get them open, using the only two fire extinguishers on Level 8 (there was none in the CSM itself). By this time some of their clothes were burned off and Gleaves and Babbit had been overcome by smoke and heat.

“It took us four minutes and fifteen seconds to get the cover and hatches off. But the Astronauts were dead, killed within 18 seconds after the first explosion.”

Space race lost?

The US needed Apollo to be a success. For the past decade they’d been playing space catch-up with the Soviets who had put the first artificial satellite in space, swiftly followed by the first man (and woman). Now, NASA believed the Soviets were at least neck and neck in the race to put a man on the moon.

Following the successes of Mercury when NASA had launched the first American astronauts – including Grissom – into space, and Gemini, during which Ed White became the first American to walk in space, NASA was on the verge of the first Apollo launch – until the fatal fire struck..

Now the government’s $22 billion investment in Apollo was in jeopardy, and President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade looked like words without substance.


Apollo 204 had been trouble from the start. The simulators didn’t work and NAA – new to the space race – had endured serious problems during the capsule’s manufacture. It was way behind schedule and shipped to the Cape with a hundreds of faults outstanding. Change in the CSM was a daily occurrence – and many of the changes weren’t being properly recorded or managed.

NASA and its contractors alike were suffering, according to Steve Clemmons, from ‘Moon fever’. “There was an attitude at Kennedy of ‘do everything, even if it’s wrong’ to get us to the moon.

“We were working at top speed to get the craft ready for launch. All-too-regular VIP visits inside the capsule, plus the huge amount of work being undertaken by engineers and technicians, were bound to affect the craft. There were miles of exposed wire, aluminium tubing, valves and electrical devices. Velcro strips with an extremely flammable backing were installed on all the open wall areas, and nylon netting was suspended below the seats.

“Then, the test itself was planned in a pure oxygen environment. In such an environment, even steel burns. Hindsight provides wonderful 20:20, but this was an accident waiting to happen.”


“Such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it,” commented Apollo 11 astronaut, Michael Collins. Writing in Carrying the fire, he said: “We put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them and left them no way of escaping a fire.......With all those oxygen molecules packed in there at that pressure (16psi) any material generally considered combustible would be almost explosive.”

Following the accident, US space flight was put on hold. Shock gripped NASA and the nation. James Webb, NASA Administrator, told the media: "We've always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later. . . . who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?"

But as the nation mourned, Webb acted to save Apollo. He asked President Johnson for NASA to be allowed to handle the accident investigation and direct the recovery from the accident. He promised to be truthful in assessing blame and pledged to assign it to himself and NASA management as appropriate. Johnson agreed.

Webb appointed an eight member investigation board, chaired by longtime NASA official and director of the Langley Research Centere, Floyd L. Thompson. It set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?

The very fact that the fire had occurred on the launch pad rather than in space probably saved Apollo. Thompson had all the evidence in front of him to assess the cause of the fire – and more so, what needed to be done to get Apollo back in the race.


The burnt out capsule was taken to Langley, and over the following weeks, a team of almost 2000 investigators took the charred capsule apart. Every piece was examined thoroughly, with intense scrutiny of the miles of wiring that had snaked through the craft.

While the fire investigations singled out no specific source – NASA’s report states ‘an electrical fire of undetermined origins’, it’s generally accepted that the fire began just below Grissom’s seat on the left side of the capsule. In the pure oxygen atmosphere, it spread with frightening rapidity.

The Thompson investigation was swiftly followed by congressional hearings by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Manned Apollo space flight was grounded until Apollo 7 launched on October 11 1968.

Webb managed to deflect the criticism from Thompson’s team and the subsequent Congressional hearings away from individuals within both NASA and the CSM contractor, North American Aviation. He subsequently resigned from NASA in October 1968.

Meanwhile, Grissom and Chaffee had been buried at Arlington and White at West Point, all with full military honours, and a nation mourned its lost heroes. Some months later, the flight that never happened was given the official title Apollo 1.

Out of the fire

Yet fellow astronaut Walt Cunningham, a member of the back-up crew who subsequently served on the Apollo 204 investigation isn’t comfortable with viewing the three as heroes.

He told me: “The crew was simply performing a routine test. Unfortunately there was an accident and they lost their lives. Nothing heroic was involved other than their being astronauts – a risky job.”

The biggest impact of the fire was that it gave NASA the necessary pause for breath to get the programme back on track to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge. “Apollo 1 was a vital step to the moon,” Cunningham continued, “because it reminded management that spacecraft were dangerous and bought the time necessary to fix deficiencies.”

Just whether NASA’s ‘fixes’ were enough was put to the test in October 1968 when Cunningham finally took to the skies alongside Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele aboard Apollo 7. The mission was a resounding technical success. A chastened organisation was finally in fit shape to put a man on the moon.

The Apollo1 fire marked the loss of NASA’s innocence. Yet the catastrophe paved the way for a new regime that revolutionised mission planning and safety. By learning its lessons so painfully on the launch pad, NASA enabled Neil Armstrong to set foot on the moon in July 1969.

Useful web resources:

NASA history
Kennedy Space Centre
USAF Space and Missile
Apollo 1 Memorial Foundation


· A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin, Penguin ISBN: 0140272011
· Space Race – Deborah Cadbury, Harper Perennial ISBN: 13 978 000 720994 1
· Carrying the Fire – Michael Collins, Cooper Square Press ISBN: 081541028X
· The All-American Boys – Walter Cunningham, ibooks ISBN: 0743486676

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Friday, January 12, 2007

0 - 60 in about five seconds

What a difference a week makes. Last time round I was bemoaning the fact that I was back, eager and hungry but that the rest of the world was still on holiday. This week my clients have hit the ground running, with the result that new work, new ideas and new proposals have been flying around me at dizzying speed. I'm now in that so familiar position of being work-rich and cash poor, but with the prospect of evening out that imbalance.

Yesterday just summed up my current working days. Before 9.30am I'd interviewed four senior managers in China, Malaysia and Singapore on one project. At the same time, my printer was churning out copy on another, and I spent the next hour reading that. Then, on the train ride up to town I got a call from a past contact who was selling me the opportunity to be involved in a pitch his management consultancy is making. For a full five minutes non-stop he babbled management speak about my essential role in bringing their proposition to life for the client. "So, do you want me to help with the communication strategy?" I asked. "No," he replied,"not quite." "Well, do you want me to present to them?" I enquired, and he replied: "not quite." "What do you want me to do then?" "We have the ideas and some great visuals - can you put the powerpoint together?" he answered.

The call was quite short after that. I'm not a powerpoint jockey - in fact I'm not even very good at slide creation. These guys had hit the common misconcepton of what comms is about. They had their plan, had made their decisions and only wanted a packager. I want to work further up the food chain whenever I can, so declined their offer.

The next few hours covered two client meetings, both for longstanding clients, the second of which is so hush hush that I'm not even sure what it's about.

Then back to base to encounter a slight delay on project four of the day - hopefully to be picked up this morning - before taking a call from client number one offering project number five. None of the projects are huge, but they'll mean a number of very long days in the next few weeks. But that's great - for the bank balance, but more so for the grey matter. This year has to be a step-up - and in a time when the work's definitely harder to find - but it's a good start.

Suddenly energy is catching!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Build from the basics

This week I've started work on two projects that reflect the changing face of internal communication. The first is raising the prrofile of two HR processes within a global bank, and the second is creating training tools for some new communicators.

On the first project, my client is an HR professional. Despite her organisation being huge and with a massive trans-continental reach, like many, it has very little communication resource at the centre - and what's there is focused on external comms and protecting corporate reputation. So, she has come outside the organisation to look at what's necessary to get managers and staff across the world to use a self-service recruitment tool, and a process for referring external contacts for jobs within the bank.

In the past, I would have expected to be working with corporate communicators with an established communication framework providing the boundaries for anything I did. Not here. My client is a resourcing expert, but a novice when it comes to using communication to get the best from the policies and practices she manages. In many ways that's great since she's open to new ideas and has none of the jaundice that too much time in corporate comms seems to bring. On the other hand, it has been a return to first principles, and parts of the project feel like pushing a rock up hill as we struggle to pin down interviews and cope with an intranet that has been piled up layer-on-layer rather than with any sense of strategy. Still, it's a good project and we've already managed a quick win or two.

Project two started today and rather than being run out of HR (like so many internal comms projects I get involved with now), this one actually comes from a large organisation's corporate communications team. However, this team has gone through a massive reorganisation recently with the result that approaching a dozen new communication managers have come on board. All are fresh, eager and full of great ideas - but none has come through a formal communications route. Finally, the age of the hack-turned-internal communicator appears to be over. In their place, I'm seeing graduates with three years or less in a business moving into corporate comms as a stepping stone to a management career.

So, as a grizzled old Yoda (though not yet 43) I've been asked to turn my experience into training - and pretty basic training too. This new intake is experienced in writing briefs and proposals and managing agencies to do the doing, and has a greater grasp of business strategy than I had 'til I hit my mid-30s. But now these eager beavers are being expected to write for an audience too - to stoke up the intranet; to meet the daily desire for project updates; to draft the speeches their leaders will deliver; and to inform and involve their internal stakeholders through everything from site newsletters to community of interest podcasts. To my generation, crafting the right words for the right purpose is second nature - it's what we were brought up on. But for these guys it's alien territory. So, for the next few days I'll be designing a bespoke course and support materials to give them the basis of what they need through a 'Writing foir your stakeholders' workshop.

It'll make a change from the more strategic stuff I created and delivered on several occasions last year - and I'm really looking forward to putting myself back in their oh so trendy shoes to develop the materials.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Year, new energy....but slacking clients

So I was back at my desk at about 8.30 yesterday morning, ready for the first piece of work of the new year - a structured research interview with a banker in Malaysia as part of the diagnostic phase of a piece of work I'm involved in. The phone rang....and rang....and rang....and switched to voicemail.

She'd delayed her return to work by a day leaving me an hour of thumb twiddling. Actually, she set the pattern for the day and for today too. I'm here, ready to pick up and run with three on-going projects, and pretty much all my clients are seemingly still tied to their duvets. Most finished work between December 20 and 22, and some won't be back for another week. In fact the common break seems to be December 22 - January 8! All right for some....

Anyway, it gave me time to think about what I'd like to see in internal comms on 007 (that's this year, not James Bond).

First, I'd like to see IC properly embedded in the business - not as the stand alone function that's approached for set-piece communication, but as the lubricant that helps to enable an organisation to be successful. That means being a key part of the business decision making process - not being an in-house publisher for previously minted decisions. That means enlightened leadership in organisations - and the resource to ensure IC can be a player not a wallflower.

Second, I'd like to see communicators think impact first and output second. Let's focus on what we need to achieve for the business and why first, and then look at how afterwards.

Third, I'd like in-house communicators to shift from thinking that they own the media to thinking about how they can encourage everyone in the business to communicate better. We're far stronger as facilitators and expert helpers than simply as writers and editors.

Fourth, I'd like to see a far greater take-up of the new tools inside organisations. Too few think beyond the newsletter and intranet - now we've got to look at horses for courses - far more audience segmentation, and far more effort to reach all our internal communities and create the right conversations with them.

Slowly it's happening. Slowly we're inching forward.

Anyway, happy New Year.....that's if you're back in the office yet.