What Apollo 11 can teach us about team building

“It’s one small step…” and, well, you know the rest. Is there any more we can learn from the Apollo 11 moon landing? The answer is yes. In this article, researchers Chester Spell, Kate Bezrukova, and Evangeline Yang find some workplace life lessons from one of man’s greatest adventures – and how they’re undertaking a new research project that could benefit us all

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Psychology Today.

Much media attention is being devoted to the 50-year anniversary of the legendary Apollo programme and especially the Apollo 11 moon landing. A lot of this attention is being used to highlight efforts to revisit the moon and construct a base there or, perhaps, to take a much longer journey to Mars. A couple of years ago, at a NASA conference in Washington, we were told that the two biggest obstacles to long-duration flights in space (months or even years) were radiation’s effects on the body and the challenges of crew member dynamics during a long flight in confined spaces.

In other words, ‘Can you get along with these other people for months on end while cramped like a sardine?’

‘Can you get along with these other people for months on end while cramped like a sardine?’

We know a good bit about these challenges from the experiences and stories of the crews on the international space station. The 60 expeditions to date, which feature multi-national and mixed gender crews, have made for a much more diverse collection of astronauts than back in the Apollo era. While we don’t have complete data on all the crew interactions, as might be expected, conflicts ranging from food choices to who does what task have come up. It would be shocking if this was not the case; people have differences in just about any setting, and this might be especially true if you live with a person in space for a long time. Such differences need to be resolved for crews to function properly. Recognising this, NASA has invested grant money in researching conflict resolution and management skills for their crews.

A different slant

We wanted to look at these issues too, but with a different slant. Recall those, seemingly homogenous, Apollo crews—all men, virtually all with engineering degrees and military backgrounds—who only had to work together (on the mission at least) for a few days although, of course, they trained together much longer in preparation for their flights. If we could find differences, and distinct approaches in working together within those crews, imagine what it could tell us about teams in other settings, since we essentially ‘controlled out’ many of the ways crews and teams often differ in ‘normal’ workplaces.

One of the particular aspects we were interested in was how differences between the crew members mattered during the missions, how their conversations and working relationships addressed any differences, and how they learned ‘on the fly’. Since they were similar in so many ways, we were interested in differences that are not so obvious.

Attributes such as those between men and women, and people from different nations, are clearly important, as a lot of teams’ research has shown; these have been the topic of many studies on how people in groups handle their differences – but, again, what made the Apollo crews so cool for us was, a bit counter-intuitively, their surface sameness. We wanted to find not-so-obvious differences in personality, background, or something else that affected how they resolved their differences.

A regional difference?

Along with our colleagues Tatem Burns and Suzanne Bell from DePaul, our first step in uncovering differences among the crews that might not have been studied previously was a dive into astronaut biographies. One of the distinctions we realised did exist between the Apollo astronauts was where they were from, and relatedly, what college they attended. Yes, the astronauts were all American but they hailed from different parts of the United States. Their places of higher education were also all over the country—the military academies, MIT, Purdue, Michigan, Georgia Tech.

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Ever work with someone from a different region of the country than you and notice they may not only talk but act differently than you? This is undoubtedly true not just for the U.S. but for other countries with different regional or local cultures. In the U.S., there are several distinct regions with identifiable cultures that have been shown to shape behaviour. For example, did you know that baseball pitchers from the southern U.S., which demographers have called the most distinct culture in the country, are more likely to throw at an opposing batter as a reflection of that region’s ‘honour culture’?

To see if there was a ‘regional culture effect’ among the Apollo crews, we content-analysed all the transcripts of the 11 crewed Apollo missions. We focused our study and modelled it on the effect of splits among the crew along regional lines; for example, if one person from the south was teamed with two others from the north east. Based on social identity theory, this faultline approach has revealed quite a lot about how teams resolve conflict, approach tasks and basically get comfortable (or don’t) with each other in groups.

In addition to the effect of solo-split regional cultural faultlines, the qualitative analysis also identified passages that told us about crew members’ collective affect, as in whether it was positive or negative and, since we had several days of data for each mission, temporal dynamics on team learning. We measured team learning from conversations in the transcripts that indicate how crews acquire, share, combine and apply knowledge. For instance, ‘Let me show you how’ is part of a passage where a specific issue is addressed by visually demonstrating to a fellow crew member how to do a task.

Exploring the ‘faultlines’

Our study is still underway, but already we have found that, indeed, different combinations of astronauts—and crews that featured different regional ‘faultlines’ – even in these small teams—approached learning and accomplished mission goals in different ways. As a baseline, we found that positive collective affect hindered team learning, while negative collective affect enhanced learning. This is consistent with past research on how negative affect is related to more systematic approaches to learning, and positive affect to beliefs that everything is OK, inhibiting scrutiny and thus learning. Negative collective affect had a weaker influence on team learning for the crews with distinct regional faultlines. Team learning also appeared to decrease as the missions progressed, and crews with stronger faultlines experienced a greater decrease in learning over time.

Our findings are preliminary at this stage, but already we are fascinated – and just a little bit teased – by what has come out so far. Even groups that appear pretty homogenous can see their learning and approaches to work shaped a bit by differences in culture you might not think about. Even more interesting is that these are team members that know each other quite well, have spent countless hours in simulated flight scenarios, and are still learning how to interact. So, just when you might think there is nothing more to gain from the legendary Apollo flights, there are more surprises.

We can’t wait to find out more and, eventually, apply these findings to teams in other situations to make some recommendations on how teams under extreme conditions can resolve their differences.

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