Building Complexity

This week i’m running sessions around ‘Failure, Complexity and Control’, based around my book ‘To The Moon and Back – Leadership Reflections from Apollo’. Today i’ve been working on this quick illustration as i tie up the loose ends and run a final rehearsal: it’s an illustration of ‘building complexity’, as envisaged in the development of the Saturn rocket that carried the Apollo missions to the Moon.

The Saturn V that carried the astronauts of Apollo 11 to the moon was not built in one sequence, but rather in many. At every stage the principles was to build and test, build and test, through individual components through to full assemblages and vehicles.

As things were learned, they were codified into procedures, documented, and then built upon.

This building up towards complexity was reflected in the accompanying paperwork.

When Gene Kranz was tasked with establishing Mission Control back in 1960, he held a blank sheet of paper. By 1969 that had built up into a 1,700 page launch plan.

The Saturn V that carried Neil Armstrong’s boot to the moon underwent 587,500 separate forms of inspection through it’s lifecycle, and the full stack rocket required 30,000 pages just to check it out onto the launch pad.

As the programme went through it’s main structural elements, the stack of the rocket literally got bigger, with each new element incorporating or building upon the one before.

But of course, stacking complexity in this way does not remove risk: it moves it into different domains. Risk may come through error more so than omission, or through combinant effects or cascades of failure.

We sometimes conflate knowledge within a known domain with expertise that will project into unknown ones, but another name for that is pride, or hubris.

As we see when we study failure, it’s often not an ignorant activity. Rather a misplaced focus, the oversight of ‘known’ truths, or simple exhaustion and inaction within unforgiving dynamic systems.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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