Failure: The Option

Failure: The Option


I was once in an engineering team meeting, where the snippet from the movie Apollo 13 was played.  The scene demonstrated that famous saying, failure is not an option. I have heard this many times since then, not in business, but on other television shows and competitive events.  The thing is, a failure is always an option. An unpleasant feeling arises in me when I hear this saying.  Failure is always an option, one that nobody would want or willingly take.  However, it is certainly failure is a possible outcome.  Knowing that failure is not an option is done as a motivating strategy, does not resolve this tension.  In fact, I recently watched an episode of Chopped (on the Food Network Channel) where one of the contestants said: “failure is not an option” with regard to his participation in the challenge.  We certainly have input to avoid or limit the damage of the potential failure. We can make prudent plans, and execute as best we can, there still will be no guarantee that we will avoid failure or otherwise be successful in our endeavor.

In the case of the Apollo 13 situation, the consequence of failure would mean the death of one or all three astronauts.  That is a very drastic failure.  The sort of failure that we would do all we can to avoid.  Failures are not all equal.  In the case of the Choppped episode, the consequence of failure is not even remotely comparable. We should not fear the possibility of failing, without considering what failure means.  The chef example from Chopped no doubt did not fear the possibility of failing, he showed up at the event and presumedly did the best he could to win.  He must have known there was a possibility of failing. Eventually, the chef found that failure is indeed an option, even when doing the best he could.  He was voted off at the second round. That is how failure works.

Platitudes and admonishments (don’t you fail) are not going to save us.  Believing that failure is not an option, is not helpful. It is more appropriate to recognize failure is indeed possible, and in some cases very probable. We should think objectively, plan and act prudently commensurate with the failure stakes, keep an ever-watchful eye on what may be coming our way, and adapt accordingly.


Post by Jon Quigley