Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Failure *Is* An Option!

You probably won’t see the American Movie Classics channel run a festival of ‘‘Great Project Management Movies’’ any time soon, but if they did, Ron Howard’s motion picture Apollo 13, based on the real-life story, would be a natural candidate. Faced with a potentially disastrous accident, project teams overcome one potentially fatal barrier after another to bring the crew safely back to Earth, guided by mission director Gene Krantz’s mantra: ‘‘Failure is not an option.’’

But of course, failure is an option. Sometimes, it looks like the most likely option of all.

The odds in the actual Apollo 13 disaster were stacked against a happy outcome, and everyone—including Gene Krantz—had to be well aware of that fact. One of the key scenes in the movie involves a team of engineers trying to figure out how to rig a CO2 filter out of miscellaneous junk.

  • The time constraint: before the CO2 levels overwhelm the astronauts. 
  • The performance goal: to work well enough to let the astronauts breathe during the long trip home. 
  • The budget: the junk on the table. 

And no one knows whether it’s even possible.

How do you balance the value of realism against the value of optimism in solving problems?

One way is to reject the false dilemma the question poses. Failure is not only an option, it’s a gateway to success ... if you fail in the right dimension.

If there is a trade-off to be made between the time constraint and the performance criteria, we know that ultimate failure—the death of the Apollo 13 astronauts—comes most rapidly from failure to meet the time constraint. That is, if we build a perfect CO2 filter, but we finish it too late, we’ve still failed. Perfect performance does not compensate for a failed deadline.

But wait! Why isn’t the reverse equally true? If you fail to meet the performance criteria, isn’t it irrelevant how quickly you fail to do so? Actually, it depends on the extent of the failure.

To illustrate, let’s look at this scenario: You’ve managed to come up with an inefficient partial solution that will last only half as long as it’s going to take to get the astronauts back home, but you’ve done so within the original time constraint. Do you take this solution? Absolutely!

Although you have failed to make the performance goal for the project within the original time constraint, you’ve reset the game clock. With a day or more to work instead of mere hours, your chance of finding a solution that solves the remainder of the problem has become that much more possible.

The right kind of failure is not only an option, but sometimes a desirable one. In this project, we can’t accept a failure to meet the time constraint, but we can live with a partial performance failure and stay in this game.

This piece was written for Federal PM Focus, a newsletter published by Management Concepts. Click the title above to register for a free 30-day trial.

Adapted with permission from The Six Dimensions of Project Management: Turning Constraints into Resources, by Michael Dobson and Heidi Feickert, © 2007 by Management Concepts, Inc.  All rights reserved. www.managementconcepts.com/pubs

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