Posted by | CDS


By Dana McConnell, CDS Executive Director

One of my favorite movies of all time is Apollo 13.  In this real life portrayal, the spacecraft was to be the third US mission to land on the moon.  However, an oxygen tank cracked mid-flight and gave little hope of returning the crew safely to Earth.  Frustrated, the NASA flight director (played by Ed Harris) explained to his team that “We’ve never lost an American in space, and we’re sure as heck not going to lose one on my watch.  Failure is not an option!”

No matter how many times I see this film, I’m still in awe of the outstanding accomplishment of the engineers, the trust displayed by the flight crew, and the unwavering leadership by the flight director.  I’m grateful that I’ve never been faced with such a difficult task, nor risked catastrophic results if I ever failed to succeed.

Throughout our lives, we often discover what works by trial and error.  A child learning to ride a bike will fall several times before balancing properly on two wheels.  A chef creating a new dish may produce an unsavory combination prior to blending that perfect mix of ingredients.  A traveler studying a new language will inevitably use an incorrect word or two before speaking it fluently.  While these failures make it tempting to quit, or worse, to stop trying our best, one is less likely to give into those fears when they feel supported.

In the workplace, a fear of failure can stifle greatness.  If an employer encourages creativity with a new product, design, or program, but then reprimands when the investment in those ideas fails, it will suppress future creativity.  Failure should be viewed as an educational tool of what didn’t work.  When employees know they are allowed to make mistakes, they won’t let fear stand in their way of success.  Managers should support staff when they hit roadblocks and encourage them to try again using lessons learned from earlier attempts.

While accountability is good to ensure that sustainability remains strong, employees need to know that making a mistake is part of the learning process.  Employees in this supportive environment are more likely to thrive, as well as the company.

On April 17, 1970, that flight crew did make it back to Earth safely.  The real Apollo 13’s flight director, Gene Kranz, is credited for saving the lives of those three courageous astronauts and leading that successful failure.  In Gene’s words, it’s important “to recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort.”  I echo those words to all employers in encouraging your team to not be afraid of trying something new.  Yes, it will be difficult, and yes, there will be roadblocks.  In fact, it may even fail.  But in that failure, new ideas or improvements might be discovered that yield even greater gains than the original idea would have produced.  Because of this, failure should be an option.