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Failure Is Not an Option. Or Is It?

“We calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.” That is what NASA flight director and manager Gene Kranz told the script writers as they prepared to write the 1995 film, Apollo 13. They immediately condensed that into a great tagline.

“Failure is not an option” is now an oft-repeated mantra for many businesses across the globe.

Pop quiz: Even though “failure is not an option” is widely used now, the film became well-known for a different tagline. What was it? (answer at the end)

So “Failure is not an option” seems like a great attitude to adopt. But is it really?

Problem number one

The intention of Mr Kranz and his rocket scientist colleagues was admirable - to convey that they were not even going to think about the project failing. Block it out because it won’t happen. It is inconceivable.

But the phrase doesn’t actually say that.

The definition of option is “a thing that is or may be chosen.” While it is true that the NASA folks were not choosing to fail, that is not what Gene Kranz meant. Of course, nobody chooses to fail (exception: see The Producers) so “failure is not an option” is almost always true in the literal sense. In fact, taken literally, it becomes pointless because it is so obvious.

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Problem number two

What he meant was that to the Apollo 13 team, failure would not be considered as a possible outcome. And that is what most people take it to mean when they hear it or repeat it. It reflects a positive can-do attitude - don’t even think about what might happen if you fail because it simply won’t happen. We won’t let it happen.

Nice sentiment, but in reality, failure is always a possibility. It could happen. In many cases, it SHOULD happen because failure is a great teacher.

When it works

The position that “failure is not a possibility” does have value in certain circumstances, but those are extremely rare: When the result of failing is massively devastating, such as the end of an organization or the loss of life, and therefore using resources to plan contingencies would be counter-productive.

With Apollo 13, failure would have resulted in the death of the astronauts and it was more important to spend every resource on solutions to the issues rather than spending any resources on figuring out what to do if the mission failed. There would be time for that later if the unthinkable actually did happen. (Thankfully, it didn’t!)

When it doesn't work

While some ventures do have enormous stakes, it is human nature to magnify our fears irrationally, including fear of failure. We imagine that the outcome of failing will be utterly devastating. In reality, failure is rarely as bad as we anticipate. We can usually recover from it better and faster than we imagine.

When the “failure is not an option” approach is adopted at an organizational level, it can harm innovation and make individuals overly risk-averse. If failure at any level is seen as such a disaster that it shouldn’t even be discussed, the intended “can-do” attitude can turn into a “shouldn’t-try” mindset.

Also, the phrase “failure is not an option” is often used as an excuse to avoid planning for negative contingencies or worst case scenarios. The thought is that if failure is viewed as something that you won’t allow to happen, then you do not need to waste time thinking about it. But in most cases we should think about it and plan for the possibility.

A better tagline

Perhaps a more constructive, though less catchy, tagline for us to adopt would be: “Expect success, but prepare for anything.”

When failure does happen, have a plan for moving forward. What will the next steps be? What did we learn from the outcome? Was our decision making process sound?

You can fail well or fail poorly – do it well and you will survive and thrive.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner


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