Failure is (most of the time) an option

This phrase became well known in the Apollo 13 movie. Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) is in charge of bringing back the Apollo 13. He famously said, “We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option!” I can think of other situations where this might be a valuable statement. A mouse, being chased by a hungry cat, would definitely agree. I guess this mantra applies to all life and death situations.

But I don’t think it applies to most real life situations. For instance in the free market, failure is always an option. Startup companies are known for their failure culture. Fail fast, fail cheap, fail towards success by learning the lessons taught by failure. Fail fast is a strategy Agile uses for getting fast feedback. After the feedback the team can adapt and become successful. It’s a smart strategy, as it is fast and relatively cheap.

If failure is not an option, one must believe in the possibility that all risk can be removed. The project will be able to get into a state in which 100% security and 100% of control is possible. This however can’t be done..not by a long shot. Believing you can, is very dangerous for the project. Basically you set up a trap for managers, a trap they easily fall into. Jerry Weinberg reminds us to the Titanic Effect, which says: “The thought that disaster is impossible often leads to an unthinkable disaster“.

So if failure is an option, what do we do now? Let’s start doing some serious risk management. And I don’t mean writing down (and never look or talk about them ever again) only the big risks. Yes a big risk can bring down your project, so can 100 little risks. Start thinking is terms of “what if”. This forces you to have a plan B (or even more, as the alphabet have 26 characters to choose from).

Continuing a project, a project that should be stopped, could get very expensive in the end, and only creates the probability of a spectacular failure. At least build in the option to fail.

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