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Failure Is Always An Option

allowing room for failure can make systems safer

Colorado Springs - Nov 20, 2003
Gene Krantz wrote an amazing book on his time at Mission Control. "Failure is not an option" focused on the heyday of the Apollo program - the good, the bad, the humorous and the mundane. Today's world has taken his famous words to heart and continues to strive for 100% certainty in everything. "Failure is not an option" appears in just about any story where lives are at stake. It has slowly crept into our vernacular as meaning anything we don't want to go wrong. It has taken on a life of its own, pushing for an ever-increasing share of the final answer to just about any situation.

But should this be the case? Shouldn't failure always be an option? To say one cannot fail is to invite disaster, stunt the learning of millions and provide unnecessary pressure where none should exist.

When we first teach children to ride bicycles, we don't tell them "failure is not an option". Instead we encourage them to make mistakes. They will wobble, fall and struggle but eventually they do learn. If we were to give the options of getting it right or not trying then they will give up before starting. Or worse yet, not make up their minds at all and be stuck forever vacillating between risk without reward or no reward for not trying.

To say that this issue is limited to children riding bicycles would be a major fallacy. There are people every day who hear in board meetings and group discussions that this or that project must succeed. "Failure is not an option" is the battle cry! We must win/succeed/survive no matter what. When one is talking about a very public and prestigious event such as a moon landing, then this is perhaps the correct course of action. To say that a project cannot fail is lunacy. So what if the project does fail? What is the company fails? What is the price paid for such an event? The inability to rationalize an actual outcome of failure is to blind us to possibilities. Failure should always be an option open to discussion at any meeting. Any reasonable manager should be working on the failure options to assure success.

No business is ever one hundred percent successful. Every last one of them has had struggles - they failed to achieve what they could be. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps. But how many companies, in the face of failure, have reinvented themselves into a stronger and more practical company. Apple is a good example. Many predicted their downfall as they tried to recover from missteps. What if John Scully had said while CEO of Apple "Well folks, we tried but we failed so there is no point in going on. Let's just close the doors." We would not have the company that yields so much innovation today.

But how many individuals go through this same transformation? If we told them that there were no options for failing, many would stop what they are doing. No risk, no failure, right? But the converse of this is no risk, no reward. The world is changed forever when people try, fail and then bounce back to recover from it. They grow and become better people by learning from their mistakes and moving forward. Success is measured by failures.

Gene's words were not meant to paralyze but to inspire. In the 1960's that motivator kept an already dedicated group of men and women toiling hard to keep three men alive long enough to get them home. They succeeded. To use those same words on a group of people who are already knocked down or nervous about their jobs invites disaster. Air traffic controllers have one of the highest rates of social ills of any profession. Divorce, alcoholism, and depression plague the industry.


Because they know that if they fail to instruct a pilot correctly that many lives will be lost. Is failure an option for them? Yes it is, but the price is very high. So they strive to do their best by keeping their training up to date and staying emotionally healthy. We the public benefit from their sacrifice of living in the "failure is not an option" zone. It takes a special kind of person to work in air traffic control - not everyone is up to the task. If we were to apply that kind of pressure to every business instance then all business would just simply stop. The risks far outweigh the benefits.

Would you work in a place where every bed sheet had to be folded just perfectly? Where every single french-fry had to be cooked just right? Would you like getting up every morning knowing that if you make a mistake, you are fired - gone - history, yesterday's news? Failure is always an option or the stress would kill us all.

So when is failure not an option? Never. It should always be on the table. It should always be discussed. It was talked about at NASA even as Gene was pushing his engineers to perform miracles. It was management's job. As much as they hoped for that miracle, they worked on a plan for the downside. As Les Brown has stated, "Hoping is not a process." The engineers did their best and gave NASA and Gene a miracle. But NASA had a backup plan in case things went wrong. To think otherwise is to be irresponsible.

Now admittedly, the cost of failure is quite high. The monetary costs can be astronomical. The price in emotional damage and in some cases human lives is staggering. But sometimes it is what we need to move forward - to find new ways of solving problems. The Apollo 1 accident is a prime example of success from failure. We lost 3 very good men, stalled our space program and damaged the psyche of the nation. We could have given up. We could have said, "This is too hard. Stop now!" But we didn't. Instead we learned from our mistakes. We took that knowledge of disaster and the sting of sorrow and forged it into a new and stronger program. We revitalized the space program, slowly at first, rebuilding our confidence with each new step. We would not have walked on the moon if it were not for the failure of Apollo 1. That failure pointed out a lot of issues that if they had not been addressed, would have cost us the bold achievement of walking on the moon.

Success is measured by failure. Success is beating the odds once more. It is snatching victory from the jaws of death. But we will never learn to savor success - to relish it - unless we first learn to fail. Failure is the transformational tool that makes us reflect on life, to strive for better and be the best we can be. Failure is always an option. It is what makes us grow stronger, more successful and wiser. Success is the point when failure fails to catch you. Think about it.

Joe Latrell is President and CEO of Beyond-Earth Enterprises, a space launch company based in Colorado Springs, CO. He is an avid space enthusiast and participates in a wide range of space related activities from discussion groups to systems development. He can be contacted via Joe Latrell - replace @NOSPAM@ with single @

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