“Failure is Not an Option” Produces Failure

“Failure is not an option” is now a common phrase. It became so as a result of the 1995 movie Apollo 13, the title of Gene Kranz’s 2000 autobiography, and other media presentations. It characterizes the “can do” attitude of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) early years.

Apollo 13 mission control - NASA photo.

The phrase has also became popular in business, as often happens with catchy phrases that seem to ooze wisdom.

Yet using the phrase can actually be dangerous … “failure is not an option” can be terrific or it can be toxic, actually producing failure.

The danger in “failure is not an option”

The danger is using the phrase indiscriminately, without discriminating between the terrific and toxic.

The terrific side:  the phrase can push people to consider things that may not be thought of or tried otherwise … things that are crucial to eventual success.

The toxic side:  the phrase can keep people from thinking of and trying things they should.

A paradox? Yes.

When thinking of the ultimate goal, “failure is not an option” is useful. It keeps people from giving up prematurely. It keeps the end in mind and is a motivator.

The problem is the phrase produces the opposite effect for getting to the ultimate goal.

Why?  Achieving difficult things, innovating, and making any major change requires taking some risk. If people think, and especially feel, that risk along the way – failure – is not an option, then they will likely take no risk.  Taking no risk means doing nothing different. Doing nothing different means no change. No change means not reaching the goal – and ultimate failure.

And paradoxically, failure to reach the end goal becomes an option … and even decided early on. Instead of “failure is not an option,” we end up with “failure is an option” or worse, “failure is guaranteed.”

Turning toxic to terrific

The key is to first make clear that thinking “there is no way” to achieve something is failure and not an option. Taking appropriate risks along the way, and suffering non-lethal failures at times, is also not just an option … doing so is required for success.

The Apollo 13 movie actually demonstrates this. [see this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhoXFVQsIxw]

Apollo 13 problem - movie clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhoXFVQsIxw

The support team determines that the Apollo 13 crew does not have the resources (power, etc.) to make it all the way back to Earth.

Initial responses to “what do we do” are along the lines of conventional thinking … meaning “we can’t do anything.” There is no conventional solution to bring the crew back safely. However, the key was not accepting “can’t be done” and forcing the issue of “must” bring the crew back. That yielded an unconventional answer … an answer that has risk but may be the only way to ultimately save the crew.

Pursuing the answer to “failure is not an option” also led to other actions that improved chances of success and actually reduced risk. Those actions would not have been found otherwise.

Thinking both “can’t be done” for end result AND “can’t fail” for “what do we do” guarantees not getting the result. Failure becomes not only an option but is usually guaranteed.

Thinking “can’t fail” for the end result AND “OK to fail along the way” is a path to potential success.

Business agility – and success – requires the “Wrong Until Right” mindset

Agility requires taking risk along the way to actually reduce risk of “final” failure. The “Wrong Until Right” mindset (described in several articles on this site and in my book of the same name) is rooted in taking action, learning from the action, and adjusting accordingly. Each action can fail, yet be successful in producing learning that leads to eventual success.

I have seen the toxic use of “failure is not an option” in business over and over. The intent is good, but the application and results are wrong.

You be different!

Take the “Wrong Until Right” path.  Here are some ways you can start:

  • Make sure “can do” is understood as how to think about the end and not the means to the end … not “can’t fail” along the way to success but “must fail” to eventually succeed.  Is that your mindset?  Do your words and actions match the mindset?
  • Review performance management.  Are you rewarding the right behavior?
  • Are policies, procedures, and processes set up for “Failure is Not an Option” everywhere or “Wrong Until Right”?
  • Are you hiring and promoting people with the right mindset or at least adaptable to it?
  • What about your company values?  Is there change needed there?
  • What does your training indicate about failure?
  • If you want to change people’s mindsets, don’t depend on “once and done” presentations or training.  That will fail.  Changing mindset should focus on both mind and behavior over time.  That is why we use our 4X training approaches like Peer Mentoring that have far higher chances of success and pay for themselves at the same time.

And, apply the “Wrong Until Right” approach to starting down the path!


By Mike Russell