What if Failure is an Option?

I love the NASA story.  The aspiration we had as a nation in the 60's and early 70's to put man on the moon is an incredible example of perseverance!  What seemed impossible at first, was made possible.  But it wasn't without some challenges.

One of the most infamous statements in the midst of a challenge, which was used as motivation to help bring the crew of Apollo 13 safely back to earth, was a directive from Gene Kranz. In a moment of crisis, he coined the phrase "Failure is not an option."

Kranz, who's back is depicted in the picture above, was the flight controller for that mission, and many others.  Almost fifty-six hours into the Apollo 13 mission, an explosion occurs on board. One of the oxygen tanks blows up, threatening their survival. This not only keeps them from landing on the moon, but jeopardizes the lives of the astronauts.  The fear is that they might not come home.

A mix of contractors and NASA personnel representing various engineers and specialists who know the systems and equipment, are called together to work on a solution to bring them home. The words Kranz uses to lead them are direct, with five that stand out, "Failure is not an option."

In the context of the situation, I have no problem with his motivating comment. He was trying to emphasize that they had to look for a "successful" way to bring a broken spaceship and three American Astronauts safely back home. His statement were powerful words that indicated for all the NASA team members that they should not rest, nor give up, until they come up with something feasible.  And, fortunately, they did!  It's an amazing story that NASA calls today a "successful failure."

Life is About Successful Failures

Why was this NASA mission deemed a successful failure, whereas Kranz was emphatic in saying "failure is not an option?

Well, NASA calls Apollo 13 a failure because they didn't accomplish their mission.  But it was deemed a "success" because they learned fare more than they would have otherwise, and, more importantly, they brought their boys back. If they hadn't failed successfully, they wouldn't have learned some key things they needed to go forward.  Failure is an experience that if properly evaluated allows us to be more successful going forward. 

Unfortunately the "successful failure" message has been trumped over the last forty plus years by Kranz's quote. His quote was catchy.  So much so that it has been lifted and marketed to death being branded on to t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, drink coasters, book titles, and more.  Heck, I've even bought some postcards with the saying and given them out as motivational tool (see the image below.) But in all honesty this infamous quote has created a false mindset. That mindset is that failure should be neither permissible nor possible.  But is it?

Kranz's statement of boldness, has evolved into a false precept and premise.  When we see that phrase, or when we set our drinks on that coaster with that  infamous statement, we have come to believe failure is a choice that we will rebel against for any endeavor.  But that was not Kranz's intent.

Kranz didn't coin the phrase for us to start with a "no failure" position.  Think of how ludicrous that suggestion really is. If we have a "no failure" position at that start, then we never choose anything that stretches us, or takes us somewhere beyond our current state -- whatever current state of success that might be. But think about it.  Growth, reward, adventure, innovation, discovery, winning are only possible if failure is also possible. You can't have a win without potential failure.  You can have a new capability without a possible failure.  The threat of failure is an indicator for success.  Success has no meaning unless there is the threat of failure.

  • At the start of any new pursuit, failure better be an option, or else it's just not worth pursuing
  • In the middle of a journey, failure should still be a possibility, otherwise it's not an endeavor that will help you reach new heights.
  • Near the end of an effort or event, failure must still be a threat, otherwise it's not very meaningful, and people will tune out.

The best Super Bowl game, for example, is one that is closely contested.  It is filled with failures.  It's the team that can overcome more failures than the other, that wins the came.

And that's the key. Failure is always an option, the trick is to find ways to overcome the failure so that it doesn't have the last word. I believe that's what Kranz really meant.

Suppose you are in that moment of crisis.  A crisis where failure is very real and very possible, and a challenge has popped up edging you closer to failure.  The intent of Kranz's statement is to motivate us to do our very best -- to not give up. -- to find a way through the obstacle. Einstein says it best. "In the midst of difficulty lies opportunity."  Your job is to find that solution in the midst of the challenge.

The Four Phases to a Journey

I believe there are four phases to a journey.  Whether it be the journey of building a business, creating an innovation, working through a career change, or landing on a planet or moon.  It's framed up in four simple words:

Imagine. Create. Explore. Discover.

This concept was something my colleagues and I recognized at the launch of our business.  Allow me to unpack it just a little bit more.

Each word is a verb - but with every verb let's add a noun to identify the intent.

  • Imagine the Possible
  • Create the Future
  • Explore the Opportunities
  • Discover the Bigger Picture

With a noun and a verb, you can start to see clearer picture.  And the truth is that Failure threatens any one of these phases. However, there is one moment in the midst of a crisis where Kranz's words appropriately apply.  Can you guess which phase?

  • A. The Imagine Phase
  • B. The Create Phase
  • C. The Explore Phase
  • D. The Discover Phase

If you guessed C.  The Explore Phase, then you are right!  The Explore Phase typically exposes the most challenges.  But, remember, it's in our challenges we can find opportunity.

Take a look at the following illustration.  It reveals the truth about failure.  Failure is an option for every phase -- meaning it  can happen.  The only time we can choose for "failure to not be an option" is in the Explore Phase.  Rather than allowing failure to be the outcome,  we can allow our selves to go back to the Create Phase (or even the Imagine Phase if necessary) and rework it!

Let's explore each of these phases further, so that we can understand the implications and thinking that happens.

The Imagine Phase

The Imagine Phase is where we start.  It's where a seed is planted based on a challenge or goal, and we think of ways to achieve a dream.  Failure from the start must always be an option. If it's not, than you stay stuck. In fact, when you Imagine - you should not just imagine the success, but imagine the challenges (i.e., failure) that you might have to navigate through.  Disregarding possible failure points will keep you from truly designing success.

The Create Phase

Failure is also very possible when you create.  Thomas Edison failed multiple times before he finally created a working light bulb.  He just didn't call it failure.  But it was.  NASA created different designs that failed, before they were able to orbit the moon.  Just Google "List of missions to the Moon".  You'd be amazed at often they failed before they found success. Apple failed in creating an intuitive home computer at the start, but they used each failure asa  means to fine tune and ultimately create the first Mac.  The stories are endless.

The Explore Phase

Failure when you explore is also very possible. In fact, the Explore Phase is likely the most problematic, but only if you cave.  The Explore phase is when you can choose to NOT let the failure be the end result.  Always work through the failure.  You can find another way.  To borrow one of my favorite phrases from Pixar's A Bug's Life, sometimes you need to"go around the leaf."  It's about pivoting.  Pivoting is always about refusing to let failure have the last word.  When we choose to  pivot, go around the leaf, find another way, it leads to that magical fourth phase - the discover phase.

The Discover Phase

The Discover Phase, is that last phase when we finally see the bigger picture.  But that bigger picture isn't impactful if we didn't go toe to toe with possible failure.  In fact, failure may very well be the outcome of the journey. Failure might be just what you ultimately discover. Think of the losing SuperBowl team. The Olympic athlete that doesn't get the medal.  The contestant on the Voice that doesn't win the contest. The business that doesn't win the work.   But it's in the midst of that failure that we can discover how to improve?  How we can recover? How we can better ourself for the next time?

Failure is often the brush stroke that reveals what we need to succeed going forward. The drawing with the final feedback arrow is intended to help us understand that when we learn from the past we can think of the future -- we are ready to imagine and create again.  It's like the four seasons. And each season, despite the threatening failures, is a beautiful stage to be in.


So is failure an option?  Yes, it is! In fact, it better be, but it doesn't have to be the "final" outcome.  Failure is not an option for those that choose to not let failure have the final say. When you are in the Explore Phase, and you are not ready to settle for failure, go back and Create again.  You'll find a way!  And if you are in the Discover phase, and experience failure at the end of the day, learn from it and begin again.  Remember, the threat of failure -- and sometimes actually failure -- is what leads to success.


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