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When Failure is our Best Option

Reposted from original at openNASA.com

You’ve heard it many times before, “Failure is not an option.” When Gene Kranz uttered this line in reference to Apollo 13, he was absolutely right. At that moment it was imperative that the team succeed in bringing the crew home safely. If you’ve ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you will certainly remember this inspirational scene. In fact, it has become a maxim for NASA. Gift shops at the agency’s centers even carry a variety of products bearing this motto. But, could it be that line of thinking is now holding us back?

Recently I attended a training class where we learned of the practice of throwing Failure Parties. These parties are held by companies to celebrate their failures. There is no pointing of fingers or placing of blame on anyone, just food, drinks, cake, and a healthy discussion about what went right and what went wrong that allows the company to move forward. In some cases, this type of analysis can even turn a failure into a success, such as with products like Post-It notes, which resulted from a failed attempt at an improved adhesive tape. Even when a flop can’t be salvaged, moving forward is key.

If you’re still wondering why a company would want to celebrate its failures, consider this: the vast majority of ventures attempted end up in failure. For every ten products introduced to the market, maybe one or two will be successful, if they’re lucky. So, if a company takes the opposite approach and “beats up” employees for these failures, you can imagine that the ideas quickly begin to dry up. Not just the failing ideas, but the successful ones too. Smart companies have found that by celebrating their failures they encourage the kinds of ideas that lead to success. While blaming employees for failures is bad and hinders creativity, there is another option that is even worse.

When the culture dictates that failure is not an option, does it mean that we fail any less? No, of course not. It encourages refusal to admit or accept failure, even when it is staring us in the face. Then, instead of being able to move forward, we are stuck living with the failure, doggedly suffering through rather than owning up to our shortcomings. This could apply to something as mundane as a new program for submitting travel expense reports or something as critical as the design of a new spacecraft. The examples are hypothetical, but the phenomenon is real. I’m often surprised at how quickly these failures are taken up as the new way of doing business and workarounds or modifications mushroom into existence. When faced with an obvious flop, so often the reaction is to jump to mitigate it, rather than to backtrack and do it right. While there is a cost to admitting failure and going back to the starting point, I think that often this cost is less than what it takes to modify a failed design or work around a failed process.

So, what am I getting at? Failure will always be a part of everything we do that is new or innovative. It has to be; it is an integral part of the creative process. If we could just learn to accept failures and even expect them, we could begin to recognize them earlier and make fewer and less costly mistakes. As Roger Von Oech said, “Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.” If we don’t shed the “failure is not an option” culture, we’re truly missing out on these opportunities.

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Sharone Woodruff

This is a great story. I have told people for years to not be afraid of failure because from my experience failure leads to greatness. The post it note is the best example. My father always encourage me to try and would never accept me not trying. So I say to all accepted the journey and don't worry about the route.

Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Jen! A few weeks ago, I was trying to think through some competencies for a "Gov 2.0 Leader." One of the competencies that was NOT required was infallibility. I referenced remarks throughout the Open Gov and Innovations conference from several speakers regarding the importance of failure: Web 2.0 visionary Tim O’Reilly talked about “safe failures,” CIO Kundra said “capturing data lets you measure when to fail fast, quit and stop putting money in bad projects" and Robynn Sturm of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that agencies should “Iterate. Try even if you fail. Keep changing.”

All to your point: Failure is an option...is inevitable and is an essential element of a more transparent, innovative government.

Thanks again for a really thoughtful post.

Profile Photo Christoph Berendes

Clay Shirky has written about the value of failure - indeed, its being indispensable - in the context of Meetup. So many proposed groups fail, but that's ok:

The advantage of having a system where failure is normal and significant success rare is that, by its very existence, Meetup continually readjusts to its current context. The standing question that Meetup poses to its members is "What kind of group is a good idea right now?" Not in the twenty- first century generally, but right now, this month, today.

Metaphorically, if you drill a lot of wells, you're likely to be saddled with a lot of dry holes as well. You're also more likely to enjoy that one big gusher that makes it all worthwhile.

To make this work, failure should be acceptable, even celebrated. As Shirky's take on Meetup suggests, it's also helpful if failure is cheap.