On Failure is not an option

published on 2013/10/20

The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”


As both an engineer and an entrepreneur, I am very sensitive of this issue of bravado. “Failure is not an option” is a recipe for death march project, where things got out of control.

The first truism in IT is that there is no silver bullet. There is not a single technology or methodology that can assure a project’s success. What brings success is the methodical iteration of a software product and a constant communication with the stakeholders of the software.

Putting an arbitrary deadline while keep the envisioned feature set is a recipe for disaster. If your launch deadline is fixed, then the feature set must be flexible otherwise you are going to compromise quality.