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