When Failure is an Option

I shared with a girlfriend, who happens to be a NASA engineer, about some lively discussions at NASA’s executive summit on how we need to balance our risk aversion in order to be more innovative.  She disagreed pointing to legacies of mission success and excellence in project execution.  I argued that good was the enemy of great and we would only get the same outcomes if we executed the same way consistent with our heritage.  Perhaps it was the sign of a very stressful week, but I found myself arguing about the curse of a long legacy of success and the blessings that failures can bring. 

Life is a lot like this.  Everywhere we look in these tough times it seems that things are so tough when we see failure all around us — jobs lost, houses in foreclosure, bankruptcies, failed marriages, and hearts broken.  But, we won’t grow as individuals unless we are willing to take risks, face disappointments, and yet maintain our resilience enough to learn and advance.

In Mental Resilience: The Power of Clarity, author Kamal Sarma states:

“To some degree, we continually search for certainty in our careers, relationships, health, and finances.  This craving for certainty stops us from living a life full of courage and freedom.  This desire of stability or certainty stops us from looking for a more satisfying career or taking chances in a new or long-term relationship and make us cling to our youth or bemoan getting older.  All this fear can rob us of our passion. “

A broken heart or a failed marriage means that we experienced joy and love.  Perhaps an engineering example would have been better for this philosophical conversation with my girlfriend.  After all, it’s much safer than love, life, and relationships. 

With the invention of the brakes, the automobile was able to get beyond the novelty and impracticality associated with this innovation.  Some folks think that the purpose of the braking system was to prevent the car from going too fast, but it actually allows the car to go faster and stop safely and higher speeds.  In looking at the risks associated with the automobile, using risk management as a learning process and not a hindrance is what enabled the critical innovation provided by the invention of the brakes.

Proper risk management is a learning process not a hindrance.  In looking at the risks associated with the speed of automobiles, inventors learned better ways to decelerate and stop.  The United Kingdom, however, looked at risk in a different way in 1865.  They outlawed the use of automobiles unless a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn preceded the vehicle.  This discouraged inventors and engineers on working on the challenge of increasing speed while maintaining safety. 

As a programmer, there were many situations where I needed a failure in my software code, just so I could get to the point of finally debugging it and solving the problem.  I needed to learn from the failure.  This doesn’t mean that we are cavalier about failure, but we perform tests, simulations, and experimentations in safe environments so that we can learn about potential failures.

A life devoid of failure lacks passion.  We never cried unless we tried.  Likewise, organizations devoid of failure or effective management of failure prevention will lack the passion and will to innovate, learn, and grow.

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO 

10 thoughts on “When Failure is an Option”

  1. How timely and applicable. That perspective of how we still experience joys and triumphs in the face of probable failure is encouraging. It brings the promise of future triumphs and successes. Still, cross your fingers for the internships I’ve applied for. I mean…I applied to them with the hopes of actually getting them!

  2. I think the problem is not failure itself but it’s the ‘size’ of the failure: the size of consequences and how this can destroy the learning (= positive) part of failure.
    That’s why the mantra should be “fail early, fail often”: small frequent failures give a lot of feedback (= learning) and very few consequences.

  3. “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much or suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
    –Theodore Roosevelt

  4. I appreciate this column, because I think I learn more from failure than from success. No one wants big, visible failure. But there are lessons in the small losses, too (if you pay attention to them, you avoid the big ones). Too often, in failure we look for blame, instead of what it teaches us. I give a lot of sharing sessions to other organizations on Spacebook, and I’m as honest as I can about what I meant it happen, what I accomplished, and what didn’t work the way I expected. I think it’s the “why’s” that make the difference.

  5. Great post! I particularly love the idea that people thought brakes in cars were to keep them from going too fast when in reality they acutally allow the car to go faster more safely. Too many times there is confusion as to the purpose of innovations. Keep up the great writing Linda!

  6. And when the risk is a life, is it worth taking? Is that failure an option? I recall having a similar conversation with her once back in 1983 when I was an APU/HYD/MECH ground controller training in the simulator at 1AM with Judy Resnick. We talked about the inherent risk of death in the business of manned spaceflight, and how for an individual, it is easy to have the courage to risk your own life in such an endeavor that you believe in so strongly and are so passionate about. But how very different for the spouses and parents and families of the astronauts, who are not at all as willing to risk the life and loss of their loved one for this passion of theirs. I remember her telling me how fortunate she felt to be single amidst her peers, and that were she not, she might not be able to take that risk, not for any lack of her own personal courage, but for the burden of courage it would have placed on someone she would have loved too much to ask to make that sacrifice. When I asked about it, I remember her confiding in me the small guilt she felt having placed that burden of courage on her parents and family. To the astronaut, the risk is more than worth taking. To their loved ones, nothing is worth that risk. Although just a casual friend and colleague, I recall how easily I found myself weeping for many days after we lost her (tears fall even now as I remember her infectious smile and energy), and how I thought about what her family must be going through and how she would feel now about her risk-taking if she could see that. Balance risk aversion against innovation? Yes, the biggest innovation and the greatest discovery is generally born of the largest risk-taking. Is taking that risk worth it? I guess that depends on who you ask.

  7. I wonder how you got so good. This is really a fascinating blog, lots of stuff that I can get into. One thing I just want to say is that your Blog is so perfect!

  8. Your passion for change is palatable. It seems a paradox for the organization that changed the meaning of possible could be stuck in safe. After witnessing some of the tragedies of NASA I can understand the need for carful and calculated risk mitigation. But to truly achieve what is great one must go beyond what is known and have faith in the frontier of change.

    I recently saw your youtube video on cloud computing. I recognize your expansive knowledge of IT and your desire for our government to expand the envelope and lead the industry in innovation. I applaud your capacity to relate your work experience to us “citizens” and pray you can ignite the organizational change necessary to bring both NASA and our government to the global leaders I know we are can be. Democracy was hard fought and technology can emancipate our country to once again dream big.

    Keep on pushing!

  9. Linda, I enjoyed the perspective you brought with the British example of the consequences of one approach to risk management.

    Since I would like to utilize this article as an intro to a risk management class, I wanted to verify a couple of points.

    1) Was it really 1865 when the British “outlawed the use of automobiles unless a man…”? 1865 seems early for the development of the automobile.

    2) Should the comment “allows the car to go faster and stop safely AND higher speeds” really be “allows the car to go faster and stop safely AT higher speeds”? (emphasis added)

    Thanks again for an insightful article.

    Kenn Garrison

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