Failure is always an “option.” Failing to LEARN is not.

Did you know that a screenwriter coined the term, “Failure is not an option?”  I didn’t until I looked it up for this blog entry.  The phrase as a  real-life operating principle sounded specious to me. So when I was thinking about the value of failure I checked it out.

The writer took a statement out of context by one NASA engineer and created an oft-repeated operational bromide. The writer put the words into the mouth of the actor in “Apollo 13” who played another NASA engineer, Gene Kranz.  Kranz is the legendary and unflappable flat-topped NASA Mission Control chief on the Apollo flights.  Over time, the meaning of this Hollwood-created principle has morphed into a notion that practitioners can squeeze out all prospects of failure if they have the will, the discipline and the All-American ingenuity of a Kranz, the archetypal, no-bullshit Midwesterner.

The line has been a disservice to front-line practitioners everywhere.  Failure happens.  In fact if you think about it almost every important initiative fails at least in part on the first try.  Everything that matters seems to require many tries – and many times falling short — before succeeding.  Even a mission as exhaustively planned as the killing of Osama bin Laden resulted in the loss of 50% of the helicopters in the execution.

Now, an engineer from NASA did use the words “failure,” “not” and “option” in a sentence.  But read how NASA Apollo flight controller Jerry Bostick actually used them.

“As far as the expression ‘Failure is not an option’, you are correct that Kranz never used that term. In preparation for the movie, the script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on “What are the people in Mission Control really like?” One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

Mr. Bostick sought to keep his team calm and focused.  Reminding them about the obvious consequences of failing to devise a solution would only have distracted them.

I believe the “failure is not an option” principle is a set-up.  The thought behind it directs us to assign blame rather to examine systems.  It chiefly serves to give incompetent superiors an excuse to browbeat subordinates.

Robert Burns had it right where the screenwriter had it wrong when he wrote,

“But little Mouse, you are not alone,/In proving foresight may be vain:/The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry,And leave us nothing but grief and pain,/For promised joy!”

Things go wrong all the time. Human life exists in a contingent world. This is only more acutely the case in policing.  Police decisions have big consequences.  These range from life-changing effects on individuals to the taking of human life.

When personnel at the line level make these consequential decisions, they only have as resources the facts and evidence as they understand them and their education, training and personal experience.  They try with all the considerable candlepower and information at their disposal to create the right outcomes.  But they have no crystal ball on the tool belt.  They cannot predict the future, even a future that might be 10 seconds post-decision.  Things are going to go “wrong” to one degree or another. The real questions are always,

  • “What are we going to do to fix it?”
  • “What are we going to learn from it?”

We the need to use mistakes as learning opportunities.  In every industry such learning from experience takes place too seldom.

Sometimes systems fail altogether and create that other opportunity for greatness, the crisis.  William J. Bratton likes crises so much he manufactures them in departments in which members do not seem to notice the real ones.  He lights fires beneath those who cannot sense the actual flames that he sees licking at their feet.  Remember his initial demand that each precinct commander in NYPD reduce crime by 10%?

We live and work in a complex world of contingency.  We need to learn continuously from experience about how better to manage and maneuver to reach our goals.  We do ourselves a disservice when we try to hold back the forces of complexity with emotionally satisfying but empty slogans.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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