Don't you believe it: 'Failure is not an option'

It's a phrase beloved of tough guy/gal bosses in the Hollywood mould, but what does it mean?

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

If it is merely 'failure would be a really bad thing', then it's just another truism. But mostly it comes freighted with something more dangerous - an element of magical thinking, the idea that we can select a small number of critical projects and simply decide that they absolutely, positively will not fail. But refusing to countenance the possibility of failure can actually make it more likely. Here's why:

It encourages rigidity. We have to stick to the plan, because to modify it would be 'failure', which is not an option. Ultimately we may fail within reach of success, because success doesn't look like we expect it to.

It creates blindness. There are forces at work that we cannot control - eg, competitors, new technology - some of which could sow the seeds of failure. But if we cannot recognise even the possibility of failure, we cannot look clearly at what is going on.

It breeds concealment and dishonesty. Many times I have been asked to rescue failing (or even failed) projects. Invariably, these projects have been failing for some time before senior management realise it. The project managers spent months trying to hide the truth from their bosses because 'failure was not an option'.

It may seem paradoxical, but the best way to guard against failure is to accept that it's always a possibility. Try engaging with reality instead of relying on magic: communicate candidly, have a plan B, look out for warning signs and, if things do go wrong, be ready to cut your losses rather than throw more time and money at something which isn't working.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Read more at

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