“Resource Maximization” … and The Art of MacGyver

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

The astronauts of Apollo 13 had to do what they had to with limited resources, none of which were designed for the task at hand. But all the same, they made it work and gave us one of the great examples American ingenuity. It’s now time for this ingenuity to come home … home to our communities.

During my time on this planet, I have never seen a more appropriate occasion for this metaphor. Our government, whether it be in Washington D.C. or at the state levels, has never been more dysfunctional. And with the increasing polarization of the country’s electorate, I can’t see it getting any better. America’s leading pollster, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, has said only fifteen to twenty of the 428 Congressional districts are open for party electorial change. Because of gerrymandering and hardened ideological views – over ninety percent of the districts will remain in the same party hands well into the future. The only contests will be in the primaries, not the general elections.

Through the checks and balances of the three branches of government the constitution created, our founders prevented the takeover of government by a single faction or ideology. They also assumed that elected officials would act as representatives of the people who elected them and govern on their behalf. What they did not see is the takeover of government, not by a single party, but rather by the phenomenon of narcissism and self-interest fueled by outside corporations and special interests. And this phenomenon is not one that can just be voted out of office and replaced by a different candidate. It has thoroughly infected both parties.

And government is not the only institution that has failed us. Public education is pathetic. After decades of “flavor of day” reforms, whether it be “Outcome Education,” “No Child Left Behind,” or “Race to the Top” our world standing has stagnated in the middle of the pack amongst developed nations. Now we’re getting ready for the “Common Core Standards” implemented by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose claim to fame was a shepherding a failed, dismal Chicago Public School system.

I could continue on and talk about higher education and its skyrocketing costs, or a host of other alarming institutional failings – but it’s safe to say they are not what they were … and sure should not be depended on for our wellbeing and future success.


I read an interesting piece last week by Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design. Catapult Design are designers, engineers, and educators working with forward-thinking organizations using technology as a means to drive social change. Their process involves; product and service design consulting, and training and design education of teams and individuals who want to know more about employing a human-centered approach to social challenges.

In other words, they’re doing some pretty lofty, cool stuff. The piece I read follows the same train of thought as the Apollo 13 example I used above, but only its metaphor is based on the ’80s TV show MacGyver. Below, according to Ms. Fleming, are MacGyver’s “four enablers of creativity” or as I call it “Resource Maximization,” utilizing what you have to its fullest and not worrying about what you don’t have.

  • He is a do-er. It’s easy for teams to sidestep creativity when taking on a new endeavor by quibbling over objectives. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. MacGyver uses action to work through the ambiguity. He could sit and have a discussion about his options, or create a tradeoff matrix, but he chooses to learn by doing.
  • His resources are defined. One of the first things he does at the start of a design project is figure out what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He makes constraints. It’s a contrast to what we associate with creativity—which is blue-sky, free-thinking, no rules. But the lack of constraints, or lack of a creative process, is in fact a deterrent to producing innovative results.
  • His goal is clear and a deadline is imminent. For MacGyver, the bomb is always ticking down. He has a defined amount of time. Failure is not an option. It’s similar to that feeling you get the night before a deadline, when the creative adrenaline rushes in at 2 a.m. The pressure is necessary to drive action.
  • He doesn’t have to ask for permission. Imagine if MacGyver had to stop with 15 seconds left on the bomb ticker to get clearance to use a set of pliers. Creating an enabling environment—tools on hand, creative ‘places,’ ‘time’ for creativity, diversity in thought—is what helps him get the job done.

You can read the entire piece by Catapult Design here.

Every community has an abundance of resources. To identify, uncover and “maximize” these resources, is the trick. A top-notch web designer could be sitting in a high school English class. An unemployed electrician could be at home just be waiting for an opportunity to help his community rather spend another day sitting on the couch watching home improvement shows. A neighborhood card club might want to deliver homemade food to a shut-in rather play that hundredth hand of pinochle.

These days, times are difficult for a lot people and in turn, a lot of communities. Unemployment is high and underemployment is even higher. Local municipalities are strapped and it’s only going to get worse. Anything not deemed as critical services have – or will be, cut to the bone. The community safety net is torn and the proverbial seamstress has been sent packing and is in line at the food bank.

Now is the time to take examples from MacGyver and the heroes of Apollo 13 – take what we have … and “maximize” it.

Now is time for your community to come together – and instead waiting for help … HELP ITSELF!


I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+


Related Posts:

2 thoughts on ““Resource Maximization” … and The Art of MacGyver

  1. It’s easy to write off government; libertarians and conservatives have been doing it for years. But none of the infrastructure that we use comes full-born without some government involvement. Using Apollo 13 as a a metaphor for individual accomplishment ignores all the work that the ground crews did to try to figure a way out of that mess. All government employees, btw.

    & yes, on a small scale, there is something to be said for DIY. But when was the last time DIY built a national highway system?

    As I said, writing off government is easy. Making it work for us is hard. But like anything worth it, it should be hard.

    1. Thanks for the comment Orwell. Good to have you join the discussion. I hear what you saying about not writing off government. My intent here is not to be taken literally. There are no absolutes or “black and white.” We will always have government, but I’m what I’m trying to convey is for us to take responsibility for our fate in life, and whatever government contributes … all the better.

      The problem I see is too many people don’t look at the resources that are available locally in their communities. Rather they complain about the government or think that just by electing someone from a different party, or more liberal or conservative – things will change and their lives will all of a sudden improve. I don’t believe that’s true.

      I disagree with your use of the interstate highway system as an example however. The government that existed under Eisenhower is nothing like the government that exists today. We have many national infrastructure projects that we should undertake at present (and should have for years), but don’t because of partisan bickering. I hope in my lifetime our government(s) return to the effectiveness of “past times behind.” I just don’t have optimism it will though 😦

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s