When "Failure is Not an Option"
This declaration has two contexts. The one where is it a motivational
motto for military men to take the hill and for football players to break
through the defense and make the touchdown, it is a truly inspiring war cry.
The phrase has a nobler genesis with Gene Franz, Mission Director for the
Apollo moon missions in the 1960s after Jim Lovell issued his understated but
undying words, "Houston, we have a problem." But the other context leads to the
Principle of Imminent Collapse. Where failure is declared to not be an option,
there is and need to bury the truth about a manifest failure and to sequester
the bearer of the bad news. In the Roman times, the messenger of bad news was
killed, not because the recipient was angry, but because he did not want that
bad news being leaked to the troops or enemy. The messenger might have become
aware of the nature of his message and passed it along out of the chain of
command that is essential in a military context.
Many corporate leaders have picked up on the value of those immortal
words but diminish them by their invocation for less than worthy circumstances.
All too often, a zealous manager or executive uses "failure is not an option"
as a shield to protect his turf and to advertise that his enterprise is doing
everything possible to succeed. He is trying to convince himself and his
contemporaries and detractors alike that everything was being done to
A colleague, Joyce Callahan, approached me one day with a sign that she
had made up on her computer that said, "If Failure is Not an Option
Can We Learn From Our Mistakes?" It was then that I understood the imminent
collapse context of that famous phrase. No body wants to admit a mistake.
Mistakes make us look bad and makes the people around us look bad. Many times,
we don't get the opportunity to remain in a job after a particularly unpopular
decision or action that resulted in a huge embarrassment or public outrage.
Refer to Marv Alpert on page 102.
Unless a person is so incorrigible that he refuses to learn from
mistakes, the best person to fill a position is one who has already been
through the mill on a particular situation. I would trust a person who got
caught up in a mistake not to do it again over one who had never experienced
that situation. Dishonest people are yet another aspect of that scenario.
Trying to decide which type a particular person is, is the essential task at
The human heart is one of those organs that benefits from small
incomplete blood flow blockages. After a series of not lethal blockages, the
circulation paths become redundant thereby saving the person from a much more
serious heart attack later in life. The younger a person is when the first
heart attack happens, the more likely that person is to die from that attack.
Count those initial partial blockages as "mistakes" and one can see that we can
"learn" from them.
But when failure is not an option in the second context, one cannot
admit to the failure and therefore gains no beneficial results from it.
Resources must be diverted to covering up the failure and assuring that the
news doesn't get out. Deceit becomes institutionalized. Stress levels increase.
Commanding results and declaring failure to not be an option is the
hallmark of an enterprise in crisis. It is one about to meet at a crossroad
with the Principle of Imminent Collapse. When the Apollo mission was in
jeopardy and Gene Kranz announced that failure was not an option, he also
marshaled every available resource and set them to the task of solving the
problem. The mission was no longer to get to the Moon, but to get home safely.
In my travels to numerous cities to meet with public transportation
managers and operations, I hear a lot of comments from drivers and mechanics,
dispatchers and supervisors, that relate to this concept of failure not being
an option. In one focus group of bus drivers, they related the scenario that
when they already had a standing room only crowd on the bus and there was a
customer waiting to board who is sitting in a wheelchair, they are regularly
told by the radio dispatcher to get that person on the bus even if they have to
get everyone off first to accomplish that boarding. Failure is declared not an
option. This is crisis mode. There is no Plan B. Not having a Plan B also leads
to the Principle of Imminent Collapse.
Bus drivers are regularly instructed to use the bus that is assigned to
them irrespective of whether that vehicle is appropriate to the route, works
correctly, or will ultimately be able to complete the run without a breakdown.
Crisis mode. Get the vehicle out there now and solve the breakdown later.
Failure to make a full schedule rollout is not an option.
Many years ago the Soviet method of industrial production was explained
to me as such. Theirs was a command economy. A Central Committee directive said
that the People need a production level of 1,000 refrigerators per month from a
particular plant, and failure was not an option. Heads could literally roll if
1,000 units did not ship each month. So a truck breaks down while delivering
compressors to the plant and only 900 compressors actually get delivered that
month. The measure of performance is the commanded shipment of 1,000
refrigerators, so 1,000 units are actually shipped. Failure was averted. But
what of the 100 compressor deficit? 900 refrigerators are shipped that actually
work and 100 that don't. They get "fixed" in the post-sale period after the
customer calls that the refrigerator is broken already. No failures. At least
none that anyone is willing to talk about. This leads to the periodic
after-market remedies that must be performed every time a truck load of
compressors doesn't arrive on time. No one is ever held accountable for the
delivery of compressors, because no one ever lets the Central Committee know
about it; because failures don't happen.