Failure IS an Option – Especially for Start-ups

In the movie Apollo 13, Ed Harris, playing NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, yells out to the control room, “failure is not an option!” The movie tagline “Failure is not an option!” has since been used by U.S. Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, and, maybe, your boss to attach a sense of imperative to goals and plans. Truth is Kranz never said it.

According to Jerry C. Bostick, Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) Apollo 13: “As far as the expression ‘Failure is not an option,’ Kranz never used that term, script writers, Al Reinart and Bill Broyles, came down to Clear Lake to interview me on “what are the people in Mission control really like?” One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was “No, when bad things happened we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.”

From that interview came a pretty inspiring movie scene. We’re pretty sure when all the scientists, engineers, and managers at NASA were scrambling to figure out a way astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise could get back home in their crippled spacecraft that nobody piped up and said “Well, screw it. Those guys are toast!” We’re also pretty sure that there were multiple possible solutions devised for each problem –– in case the first one didn’t work! God bless Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, but yelling out movie taglines is no way to run a government or a factory.

Managing Failure

Success can be relatively easy to manage. If you are in the happy position of being sold out, with customers clamoring for more, you will face challenges. Expansion, hiring, permitting, and all the things associated with increasing production become urgent. These challenges can be large, and naturally you will have to do them uncomfortably quickly. Expansions can be hard, but the difficulty pales in comparison to the skills needed to manage failures such a poor plant startup or a factory closure.


If you are charged with starting up a new operation, understand that failure is an option, but we can offer the following guidance.

  1. Scope – Ground Zero. Welcome to Gilligan’s Island! No phone, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury…….really! You may well be faced with this in a literal sense. A new facility might not be equipped with an IT network, copying machines, or even pens and pencils. Make an assessment, get the basics, and build from there. Remember that nobody is around to do it for you.
  2. But it works in the Lab? It works in the lab, but that sure doesn’t mean it will work the first time in your brand-spanking new factory. You will fight many battles in a plant start-up but the battle to convince your R&D team and your top leadership of scale-up issues will be the most important. The only way we know to convince your R&D team that production situations are not directly scalable is data….data….data.
  3. Develop a strong support network. You don’t have to be alone, but you will be unless you understand the need for a good network. The start-up experience is so intense that there will be little time to figure it out as you go. You need places to find answers and resources. Strong relationships with your suppliers, the chamber of commerce and/or economic development groups are likely candidates for the network. Don’t forget internal resources, either. The homegrown supervisor you just hired to run a sequence just might be able to lead you in the direction you need to go to find a fabrication shop or a contract welder.
  4. Have an exit strategy. You may give your heart and soul to the start-up company, make good decisions, and bleed company colors but still not be able to make it work for you. Discontent grows rapidly in this bitter soil and you will need to recognize the impact on your effectiveness. Be alert to this and understand that the results of the business plan should determine your exit, not your emotions.

In start-up operations, like no other, John Maxwell’s principal of “Everything rises and falls on leadership” is paramount. Start-ups will require you to have an entrepreneurial spirit with high levels of skill and inner resources coupled with a high tolerance for risk. You will need a strong sense of autonomy, self-control, and optimism. If you don’t possess these characteristics you may fail, but you will become more resilient with that failure and be better prepared for what the future will bring. If others around you have not yet had the privilege of failing – be warned!

Your experience is critical to the success of the organization and without it the firm has a high probability of failure.

By: Bryan Geary & Carl Sorrell of OPF Enterprises

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