10 Questions About Failure (And Whether It’s An Option)

Gene Kranz, Mission Control chief for the Apollo moon landing, was famously attributed the quote ‘failure is not an option’. In reality, he never uttered those words (although he did borrow them for the title of his autobiography). The quote has come to mind again as i develop the work around ‘The Experimental Organisation’, because failure is a part of these conversations.

Every Organisation that i am talking to around ‘experimenting’ and change describes the importance of failure, but none have yet described any comprehensive or compelling methodology or process through which it is processed or held.

There tend to be contexts within which failure is processed (as part of a project review, or set analytic pathway), but also a broader ecosystem of social context and consequence that they are largely silent about, or ignore.

The ‘accounting’ of failure could hence be described as taking place beyond oversight or calibration: largely left in the realms of folklore or judgement.

At this stage of the research i am largely plotting the landscape to explore, but it’s already clear that one location of interest is failure. We tend to talk a good talk around it, but i am interested to see if there are any more practical systems or mechanisms by which failure is processed, learned from, explored, or avoided.

Questions i may ask at this stage would include:

  1. How does your Organisation handle failure – is it a consistent approach or an intuitive  or contextual action or judgement?
  2. How long is the shadow of failure – can you describe, identify, or recognise, any mechanisms or instances of a folklore of failure?
  3. Is the price or failure always distributed equally, or does it tend to cluster, or be imposed on others?
  4. Does failure always carry consequence – and if not, it is ever clear in which contexts it does, or does not, do so?
  5. Is failure ever acceptable – does your culture permit or welcome it, or always execute it?
  6. Is failure an individual, or collective, responsibility – and whatever your answer, can you identify specific mechanisms or processes that back up what you say – or is your answer intuitive?
  7. Is failure judged in relative, or absolute, terms – e.g. if outcome does not match expectation, is that inherently and always a failure, or could it be accidental innovation – and whatever your answer, can you identify specific mechanisms or approaches that your Organisation uses to identify which?
  8. Should you ever seek to deliberately fail – or is progress always about heading for a destination we know about?
  9. Do you ever analyse failure – your own or others? And do you ever actively look externally for inspiration or insight through the failure of others?
  10. Do you always fail fast enough?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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