Monday, March 19, 2012

Actually, Failure Is An Option

Ahhh the classic phrase: "Failure is not an option." Uttered by entrepreneurs, Hollywood generals (I don't think real-life generals use the phrase much), and desperate product managers around the world, it's as much a part of corporate ritual as any phrase. The only problem is that it's completely wrong.

Failure is always an option.

Any time we engage in an endeavor, there's a chance we might fail. Sometimes the chance of failure is very slim and sometimes it's very high, but there's always a chance. For example, later today I'm going to meet with a client. There's a chance I might not make it to the meeting place. I might get lost, or get hit by a bus, or have a heart attack on the way. It's extremely unlikely, but it's possible that I won't make the meeting. Fortunately, I didn't say "failure is not an option!" before I headed out.

So what do we really mean when we say, "Failure is not an option"?

We mean we really really don't want to fail. We mean that the consequences of failure are really very bad and we don't want to experience them.

For some people, this is when you're facing a major inflection point. Think our Hollywood general getting ready to defend the last redoubt of the good guys from the terrible evil enemy. If he fails, then all that is good in the world will be gone forever and we'll be alien slaves (hey, it's Hollywood!). Or, in the realm of software, maybe this is closing a deal that's going to keep the company from going out of business. Or maybe it's releasing a new product that keeps your division open and keeps everyone from getting laid off. In all of these cases, we might actually fail. And it would really not be fun. But it is an option.

For other people, "failure is not an option" is something of a verbal tic. Everything is of monumental importance to them, and they're failing to consider actual consequences. These are the same people who can look at a list and make 70% of the items on that list be top priority. These people have to be managed very actively, or their panic can bring down the productivity of an entire team.

When someone tells you, "failure is not an option", that's time to have a conversation about why this is so important and what we can all do to make failure less likely. Then take a few minutes to contemplate failing, consider the consequences, and allow for them. We don't want them to happen, but it's best to be prepared. After all, failure is always an option.


  1. The phrase, of course, originates from the film Apollo 13, where it is famously uttered by Flight Director Gene Kranz's character, played by Ed Harris. There, the failure option involved the death of three astronauts (as it did in real life), so one can perhaps forgive him a little hyperbole. It's definitely overused in less dire contexts.

    Kranz himself never actually said it, but he liked the line enough to use it as the title of his autobiography.

  2. That's really cool - I didn't know that was the origin of the phrase.

  3. I'd be willing to bet that most people who throw that line around just think it sounds cool and haven't really thought about it like you abviously have.
    A company I worked for even had coffee mugs made for one project with "Failure is not an option" printed on them just before I started there. Not everybody found it amusing when I half joking mentioned that "this explained a lot, because if failure is not an option... I guess that makes it mandatory?"

  4. Okay, I kind of want that mug, but only if there's a typo on it. "Failur is not an option" or something like that.

  5. Personally, I love when someone in "authority" says "failure is not an option" because (as far as I'm concerned) I've just been given permission to change the rules. The easiest way to avoid "failure", or course, is to re-define failure.

    Now, that may sound like a "cop-out", but it doesn't have to be. If "failure is not an option", that tells me that a "success of limited scope" just became an acceptable alternative to (forgive the car racing jargon) "Checkers or Wreckers" -- which of course means, "I'm going for the win, and if I don't get it, it's because I over drove and crashed or blew up the car, but I ain't coming in 3rd!"

    Sometimes 3rd is plenty good enough... for today. :)