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When is failure an option?

I don’t know who coined the phrase that “Failure is not an option.” I think it comes from war movies. On the other hand if failure is not an option in military maneuvers; why do they have a bugle call for “Retreat!?”

When it comes to projects, we have all seen examples of failure. I was talking to someone that was managing a non-healthcare project that was doomed for failure. The sad thing was that they had the mentality that “Failure was not an Option.” So the project sponsors and program managers were looking at ways to maneuver resources and re-define milestones in order to fit what was now a scaled down scope, for a project going down in flames. It’s like starting a road trip to Disney World, figuring out that Gas is too expensive and stopping at a roadside attraction instead.

Nobody plans to fail. Unexpected changes in resources happen and unsupported projects are the first on the chopping block. Changing the game plan to avoid failure is often a political decision rather than an operational one. When is it acceptable to change direction in the middle of a project? Have you ever had to pull the plug on a project in order to stop the bleeding?



Failure is just the most expensive way of finding out your goals were wrong.

Joe, that's a great story idea. Let me know any other responses that come in to your email.

I think that's definitely a top-down thing. Organizations usually take on the risk-taking appetite of their leader, be that the CEO or someone closer to the ground level. If you find an organization that's scared of failure, look to those that set the tone.

In the book, The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach, there are two stories that make your point.

On two occasions, George Washington surrendered in battle and walked away. The expression 'lived to fight another day' comes to mind. There were a number of other situations where he accepted defeat and walked away from significant property rights.

Perhaps, 'Avoidable failure is not an option' might capture the management challenge. Then, to your point, the challenge is to be honest and humble about avoidability.

Live and fight another day....and use resources wisely. I think some organizations just have a culture of fear.