Next month will mark the 47th anniversary of Apollo 13. The film that recounts the story is a favorite of mine, probably because it so masterfully captures the incredible suspense, fear, and hope felt by people everywhere, that I personally recall very well. I also know how an organization’s digital transformation can generate similar reactions!

Apollo 13 was likely a casualty of the space program’s incredibly aggressive schedule. NASA, with U.S. political and military leaders, was motivated by competition from the U.S.S.R. and fear of the potential consequences of not being first. Urgency often overruled caution. A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

“First” is a competitive imperative in business, too, creating an urgency around digital innovation. But unlike the space race, the end goal of “first” for business isn’t simply getting there, it’s the impact you create once you arrive. Strategic apps need to work correctly more than once.

Shared visibility into problems is key

Launch day produces sweaty palms in both scenarios. Stuff can – and does – go wrong. In both cases, the initial questions are the same: “What happened?  What’s the status?” In the film, NASA engineers struggle to remain calm as disaster unfolds on their consoles. Each of them is monitoring a different aspect of the mission – flight operations, the Odyssey space craft, the astronauts themselves. Collectively, they cannot see what is going on. Sound familiar?

In this respect, the metaphor is all too valid for modern IT Operations. Often, teams have little visibility into exactly what is happening when a problem disrupts service delivery. They struggle to quickly assess the scope, parse the data from separate components, reconcile disparate conclusions, and ultimately (hopefully) determine the root of the problem.

Is failure not an option, or is it inevitable?

In the movie, when discussing options for rescuing the three astronauts, Flight Director Gene Kranz tells his team, “Failure is not option.” The same is true for strategic digital business initiatives. But most IT professionals would admit that failure is practically an inevitability in the systems that deliver them. In fact, viewed in terms of the user’s experience, malfunctions are frequent, like intermittent slow response, images that don’t load, failed connections to third parties that cause a transaction to hang – the list goes on.

So, to what extent are these “degrees of failure” viewed as impacting the success of the initiative itself? In practice, probably not at all, because in most organizations, it’s not observed. If you are not monitoring IT service delivery for interruptions and degradations – and further, the related impact on conversions, registrations, enrollments, payments, etc. – you don’t even know there is a failure, until it is catastrophic. But what you don’t know can hurt you. Houston, we have a problem…

Shared visibility, increased manageability

Embedding better visibility and manageability into their operations wasn’t feasible for NASA in the 1960’s.  The computer in the Apollo 13 command module had 64Kbytes of memory and operated at 0.043MHz; my iPhone 6 is 32,600 times more powerful than each of the IBM mainframes at the Goddard Space Flight Center. That brings to my mind another scene from the film. Flight operations realizes that they urgently need to recalculate the space craft’s re-entry trajectory. In unison, several guys reach behind their keyboards for their slide rules. Yes, slide rules! They did not have an interactive application that would automate the complex calculations.

By comparison, today’s IT organizations have all the computing power in the world; much can be done with modern application management technology to respond to, and even prevent, service delivery degradation and failures. The dependency of business results on IT operations variables can be observed, and even inform IT objectives and practices. It’s not rocket science. To ensure the success of strategic (and costly) digital initiatives, APM is essential.