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Failure: The Ever-Present Option

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There is a saying immortalized in the movie Apollo 13 that “Failure is not an option.” Truth is, in any project or operation, failure is always an option.

Every. Single. Time.

No one likes to fail, but it’s an inevitable part of life. I don’t know who originally said it, but it is true that the only people who have never failed are those who have never tried.

So, what does it mean for a leader if failure is always an option?

  • Start by defining what success and failure are. Then determine what effect failure might have. For instance, if you are working to develop a new product or process, then failure will probably not be catastrophic. It might even be a learning process leading to subsequent success. But, if you’re in a last ditch effort to save the company, failure takes on a very different significance.
  • Now that you’ve identified what failure is and what effect it can have, you need to spend some time identifying what can cause failure. Where and when are hiccups likely to occur? What have you learned from previous experiences? Where are the knowledge gaps? That’s a very important question to ask. You don’t know everything so it’s important to acknowledge and explore what you don’t know.
  • Aggressively attack failure modes. You’ve identified them, now make it a point to eliminate or at least mitigate them. They most likely will not go away by themselves.
  • Hopefully you’ve done this assessment with your team so everyone is aware of potential failure modes and actions to avoid them. Now it’s time to wrap it up and review with your team. Even if you know the team is aware of the urgency of success, it’s a good idea to clearly express that urgency. If failure would be catastrophic then say so. Urge the team to pay attention to the identified failure modes, but also to be diligently aware of those you might not have identified but could prevent success. It’s important to identify potential causes of failure while they are still manageable.

In the movie Apollo 13, Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) is explaining to his team of engineers what needs to be done to keep three astronauts alive in a damaged spacecraft. He challenges the team to figure out how to do that. This is when he says “Failure is not an option.” (He didn’t actually say that but liked the movie version so much he used it later as the title for his book)

What he was saying is, “This is so critical that lives depend on success. We cannot afford to fail.” Of course everyone on that team knew that, but it’s still a good leadership technique to be absolutely clear about what the tolerance for failure is.

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