Failure Is Not An 0ption

Posted by

Just last week, I caught myself watching Apollo 13 for the umpteenth time on TV. The Oscar Award-winning Ron Howard epic was released in 1995 and dramatizes the lunar mission that took place in 1970.

Things went terribly wrong on that space voyage. A cryogenic tank exploded in the service module which caused a power failure and loss of oxygen in the command module. The entire purpose of the mission then shifted from landing on the moon to suddenly having to solve a problem no one imagined would happen in a circumstance that had unique challenges. And while the mission is mostly known for the famous words spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell: "Houston, we’ve had a problem," it was the lead flight director for Mission Control on Earth, Gene Kranz, who turned to his team and challenged them to find a solution for the orphaned space ship by saying, "Failure is not an option."

In recounting the story, this is what Lovell says about the Apollo 13 mission: "Survive we did, but it was close. Our mission was a failure but I like to think it was a successful failure."

It’s interesting to think about the correlations that exist between those moments nearly 40 years ago and today in business.

Many businesspeople would like to think that everything they do has to be perfect and that the market will reward them for their acumen, but many do, indeed, fail. It’s not just the recession that creates bankruptcies and insolvencies; it can be poor management, not understanding your marketplace and – sometimes – simply bad luck. It turns out that in the traditional business world, failure is indeed an option (and sometimes, it is an acceptable option). The Internet and new media act differently from the regular day-to-day activities of traditional business. In fact, when it comes to the online world, failure is not an option.

The only way that people really fail with their online marketing or social media initiatives is when they treat them like their traditional marketing and advertising campaigns.

To truly embrace the notion that "failure is not an option," two things need to happen:

  1. Shift to a "live" mindset. Everything online is moving toward what is widely being called the "live Web." It is (practically) happening in real time. Case in point: it was announced this week that Facebook is acquiring FriendFeed. The breaking news was grabbed from a highly trafficked tech blog (TechCrunch) and proliferated across Twitter faster than you can say: "Please retweet this." It was practically an hour before the major mainstream media outlets were able to get the word out on their own websites (and in their traditional news channels the following day). Why? The traditional infrastructure is simply not set up for a real-time environment. Businesses are the same. Think about how you can change your existing business model from what you have to a "real-time" mindset. Imagine what it would be like for the New York Times to start acting more like Twitter.
  2. Learn as you go. When you work in a real-time environment, you don’t have to wait for things like a campaign or project to be over to learn what happened. The beauty of this is that you can change and optimize your business as you go. Think about your advertising: at the beginning of the quarter you brief your marketing department and advertising agency on your new products and services. From the briefing several campaigns and initiatives are launched. It’s usually not until the end of the following quarter that a proper analysis is given that takes into account everything from sales to the overall sentiment expressed by consumers about your creative in the marketplace. Now, compare that with the power of advertising on a Search Engine like Google, Yahoo! or Bing. You can see – live – which keywords are generating clicks and which of those clicks are generating some kind of conversion. Within minutes, you can learn, change course, adjust and optimize. You don’t learn after everything is said and done (so as not to repeat the same mistakes next year), you are learning in a real-time environment. With that kind of pace, mistakes are often just mis-steps (or, at least, they should be).

The tragedy is that many businesses online still believe that failure is an option.

Even if the online campaigns don’t hit (or surpass) all of your pre-established key performance indicators, there is little doubt that between the data you gathered and the learning that took place that you, your business and your marketing grew in ways you probably never even imagined possible. If all else fails, the digital channels still provided you with a real-time focus group. If someone does not like what you’re doing online, it’s usually just a simple search on a platform like Google, Technorati and/or Twitter to know why.

Failure is not an option anymore. At worst, you learned, you grew, you changed, you adapted, you optimized and you figured out what works … and what doesn’t. And, if all else does fail, try to have some kind of "successful failure."

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – In new media, failure really isn’t an option.

Vancouver Sun – Failure is not an option, unless it’s successful.


  1. This is a very interesting post, thank you for bringing it up. To me failure is simply giving up and/or not adjusting to new information.
    In the Apollo situation they couldn’t give up but their goals changed. I think that sometimes people/businesses/campaign managers etc set unrealistic goals and then due to ego or some other irrational behavior continue until goal is accomplish no matter what they encounter along the way.
    It’s like the Stephen Covey saying about doing things right versus doing the right things. One can be making great MPH going South from Boston but if they are headed to Canada there not going to get there or at least not in the most efficient way.
    So as you mention here, the only real constant now a day is Change and how quickly we, as individuals, brands, campaigns, etc change to accommodate our new Fast / 140 Char / Instant share lifestyle that has been the catalyst to this “Live Web” movement you mention.
    So the only true Failure now is really NOT about accomplishing a particular Goal but more importantly not recognizing that the Goal has to be changed to best serve your following.

  2. New media gives us the opportunity to fail faster and with more feedback. This should encourage us to be more adventurous
    We are able to A/B test with samples and run with the more effective one.
    Using real-time metrics we can see if something is living up to expectations and if not, drop it, change it completely or tweak it.
    If something gets bad results but gives you actionable insights then it’s not a failure.

  3. In this week’s Weekly Leader podcast (episode 14) we interviewed Marty Linsky, Harvard Kennedy School professor, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and co-author of a new book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. We talked about the importance of leaders creating a culture that supports and encourages innovation and risk taking and rewarding the most significant failures from which something important is learned. We think it’s worth a listen.
    Another Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote a great book titled Confidence in which she suggests that success and failure are trajectories, so at any one point in time, organizations exist at a point along the success – failure continuum. Often taking a longer term view will will cause what looks like a failure today to be success in the future.
    Everybody “fails” at some point so learning from the experience and being adaptable are ultimately keys to success.
    Weekly Leader podcast episode 14 interview with Marty Linsky on The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

  4. I work in new media, for a large entertainment company with multiple brands spanning diverse age ranges and demographics. The problem with real-time success in this business is threefold (1) the system is so large it’s not built to accommodate real-time analytics or any system for that matter to measure real time success (even with comscore and omniture data) (2) ROI is measured in months, quarter to quarter year to date and (3) failure is a political deal breaker. Fail once, an acceptable loss, fail twice (even though there is a lot to be learned from that failure) start looking for a new job. Period. That is the real consequence and reality of failure – in an “old media” structured business. Great post, and certainly true in many of today’s businesses, but it’s simply not a reality in most large scale businesses, when you have a Q. revenues of $3B, each department pulls its weight or gets cut based on successful ROIs and low rates of failure. In my 9 years I’ve seen countless people “let go” do to failure, however valuable the lessons learned. Whats the solution? How do you evolve as a company when you’re so deeply entrenched in concrete methods of measuring success? BTW I enjoy the mediahacks podcasts.

  5. I agree totally with you..but only if failure is the unfortunate outcome of risk taking and real efforts to innovate. They are still too many organizations that haven’t yet learned from the successive failures of their web 2.0 projects. They paste 2.0 features on their websites without changing their approach and blame it on technology for their failures.

  6. Some successful personalities had been to failure but bounced back and for the second time they nailed it big time. Is that what you mean about successful failure?
    People are allergic to failure; hate to admit that they are losers. Failure is inevitable especially if actions and decisions were taken inconsiderably. However, new media makes it different.
    Our access to get what people think, preferences and needs makes us ahead of failure. Quality research and planning is the foundation of a good a product. So why start a business with a great percentage of failing.
    Business is a gamble, but still objective view of the metrics should be highly considered to lessen the risk.

  7. One minor detail about your story: Gene Kranz never actually said “failure is not an option” during the Apollo 13 mission. That line was one of the dramatic licenses taken by the film’s writers (another was changing Jim Lovell’s famous line from the past tense to the present “we have a problem”).
    Then again, Kranz loved the line in the movie so much he used it as the title for his autobiography.

  8. Thanks for the clarifications Steve. I had seen the shifting of the “Houston” line from past to present (and made sure it was right in the article), and I was unsure of the “failure” line because – as you said – he used the line as the title of his book, so I figured it was “his line” 😉

  9. Hey Mitch,
    While showing up a bit late to this post, the thing that strikes me is “Imagine what it would be like for the New York Times to start acting more like Twitter”.
    I’m not sure that personally, I’d want a newspaper to be like Twitter. Sure the old newspaper model is broken, dying and all that – that’s not my point.
    At college (12 years ago!), on the rare occasions I bought a newspaper it was to read the editorials (and the sports!). I could get news from radio but it’s the opinions that deepened my view of things – that’s the kind of content I might (*might*) pay for.
    I guess that’s what you do with Wired, Fast Company et al?
    I’m not sure the NYT (or many other *traditional* media outlets could be Twitter!

Comments are closed.