Failure is Not an Option


The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

– Clay Shirky, and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality

Clay Shirky’s post struck a chord with me, as I have burned into my memory a meeting at which I actually heard a manager say those five exact words —failure is not an option — to his team (which did not, thankfully, include me).

From that experience, and the epic failure that inevitably followed, I came to a realization: with the exception of raging assholes, there are only two places from which a manager will ever speak those words, and neither of them is good.

The first place is one of ignorance. The manager doesn’t have a real understanding of the project, or how well (or badly) it’s going, and that makes them nervous. Instead of actually digging in to get that understanding, however, they just present the edict: the project will be successful. With this comes the implication that they don’t want to hear any more about the topic, as they have now done everything that could be expected of them.

In this scenario, the team has probably long since realized that the person in change has no idea what’s actually going on. The declaration itself, however, can be poison even to a project that’s actually going well: having the person in charge highlight their lack of trust in the team and ignorance of the amount of work that everyone has put in is a killer. Maybe the project ends well, but you’ve now got good odds that the people responsible for that success depart as quickly as they can.

The second place is one of fear. The manager knows that failure is a very real possibility (if not a certainty), but doesn’t feel that they can do anything to mitigate that possibility. Perhaps the manager has been issuing glowing progress reports despite knowing about difficulties encountered along the way, or committed up front to a scope or timeline that was unrealistic to begin with.

Here, whether the fault is the manager’s for suppressing problems the organization’s for refusing to hear the problems that person raised, the end result is the same: abject failure. And again, the people who worked hard on the project (and may well have done some very good work in the process) will be looking for the door.

Either way, no one involved ends up in a good place.

As Shirky points out, it is a cultural failing that lets things get to the point where someone feels the need to make this statement, and if that happens the organization has failed, even if the project doesn’t.