Is Failure an Option?

There are two somewhat contradictory quotes that are often used when discussing failure. Both signify a different approach to failure and even business and entrepreneurship as a whole.

  • Fail fast and fail often
  • Failure is not an option

The first of these phrases is a frequent mantra of startups looking to succeed in a high risk, high reward environment. The latter is a line from Flight Director Gene Kranz’s character in the movie Apollo 13. Both quotes sound really good, and are easy to invoke when advocating for either speed or caution — but can we find some reconciliation in them? An understanding or a balance that tells us when either is appropriate?

Perhaps. Let’s first consider the context of each.

Fail fast and fail often

No one wants to sink money into an idea that simply can’t work. With finite resources, we can only try so many ideas before we run out of time — that is why one prominent approach is to minimize the amount of resources spent on each idea, and maximize the number of ideas that we can try before it’s too late. Further, by learning from each idea we can fail towards an approach that works. Each failure building towards a larger success. 

This philosophy is often wrapped up in a simple and absolute statement such as “fail fast and fail often,” sometimes with “fail forward” added to the end. This approach emphasizes speed and flexibility, but also incurs additional risk and writes off the occasional benefits of perseverance — sometimes, something that has failed after all too many attempts does start to succeed.

Often we are not looking for one particular success however, instead we are looking for any success that accomplishes our objective. For a fast-moving entrepreneur, that means a successful business, even if they end up selling baby clothes instead of race car parts. For a young, ambitious scientist, that means getting an article published in a peer-reviewed journal rather than curing a disease. We often have to adjust our goals when taking such a flexible approach. 

Herein lies a problem of sorts. If everyone pursuing the larger problem finds a shortcut to profitability, then how do we achieve the longer-term goals? Maybe we don’t. And if we adopt this attitude as an absolute, then what do we do about the consequences of the failures that inevitably arise? Sometimes those consequences are in losing money and reputation. You win some, you lose some. Sometimes those consequences are in folding a company that employs lots of people, or even causing death and injury if we are talking about safety-critical systems — this is where things get concerning, and where another attitude towards failure comes into the picture. 

Failure is not an option

The year was 1970, only months after the first crewed landing on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Apollo 13 was the third attempt to land humans on the Lunar surface. However, an oxygen bottle failure aboard the spacecraft’s Service Module necessitating an early abort. Under the supervision of NASA’s Mission Control, the spacecraft looped around the moon and was brought safely back to Earth.

During the midst of this crisis, as Mission Control staff worked calmly to resolve each problem as it arose, Gene Kranz, a flight director during the mission, is often quoted as saying the phrase “Failure is not an option.” That quote actually originates from the script of the movie Apollo 13, but Kranz wrote that the quote well captures the sentiment of Mission Control at the time, even titling his autobiography after the famous line. 

More specifically, Kranz stated that when Mission Control listed all of the options available to them, that failure was not one of them. Indeed, when human lives are on the line, how can you choose failure? Stakes can’t get any higher than this, and the personnel of Mission Control had to work in that environment routinely. 

We see in the case of Apollo 13 that failure has an exceedingly high cost, thus is to be avoided. However, if the prospect of failure was absolutely inconceivable, then the safest course of action would be to abandon the prospect of landing on the moon at all, and instead take no risks and make no flights. We can apply this idea to Entrepreneurship as well. If an entrepreneur is considering either pursuing an established or an innovative business model, the established choice presents far less risk. It is a path well-trodden. That path however brings nothing new to the world. It doesn’t innovate, and the potential rewards for success are not as significant. This is why we take risks, even when the consequences of failure are extraordinarily high.

How do we manage this potential for failure?

Calculated Risks

When we take risks, we must understand and mitigate the consequences of failure. If the consequences are small, we can easily accept that risk and use either success or failure to inform our next action. If a risk is substantial, we should work to mitigate the impact of failure if we can, and reduce the likelihood that it will happen.

Taking the missions to the moon as an example once again, the engineers working on the Apollo program took steps to understand and mitigate their risks. Instead of trying the full landing in one mission, they slowly worked towards that goal. The Mercury program put the first American in space. The Gemini program completed the first rendezvous of two spacecraft, which later proved essential during the Lunar mission (the lander detaches and ascends as a separate craft). The Apollo program then included 10 missions prior to Apollo 11, each building towards the landing, practicing a crucial step in the journey necessary to execute a successful crewed landing. 

Practice makes an activity safer. Don’t fly a human the first time, use a robot or a crash test dummy. In software, don’t deploy to production first, deploy to staging. Test what you are going to do and measure the results. But do not let analysis and aversion to risk prevent all forward momentum — create lean processes and eliminate unnecessary ones. Take small steps and evaluate progress after each. This is how you land a human safely being on the moon.