Failure is Not an Option, and Neither is Blame, Most of the Time.

Know anyone with this as their favourite mug?

Here’s a quick quiz.  Where did the phrase ‘Failure is not an option’ originate? 

  1. Queen Boudicca AD 61, in her famous  rallying call to the Iceni Tribe before taking on the occupation forces of the Roman Empire.
  2. Chief Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel 1835. In his brief memo to all Great Western Railway staff, stressing the importance of building a fast and  reliable (under 2 hours) link between London and Cardiff.
  3. Hollywood Script Writers Al Reinhart and Bill Broyles, 1995. Created as the tag line for the Apollo 13 movie.

The answer is obviously 3, the 1995 tag line to Apollo 13. But it does feel like an expression has been around for ever. One of the ‘standards’ you hear rolled out in organisations with monotonous frequency, often by someone who’s been on a performance management course. Even grown-up organisations like NASA and the Smithsonian Institute will sell you; mugs, t-shirts, mouse-mats and other paraphernalia with it emblazoned upon.

The story behind ‘failure is not an option’ is worth reading (link here). It apparently came about from an interview with Apollo 13 Flight Controller Jerry Bostick who was asked what happened when things went wrong, “did people panic?” The answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out the options and failure wasn’t one of them”. Thanks to Roxanne Persaud (@Failwise) for alerting me to what feels like another NASA inspired urban-myth.

Failure is inevitable and so is blame. A recent Twitter thread by David Oliver (@mancunianmedic) generated an explosion of commentary about risks, mistakes, failure, accountability and blame. I’ve linked to the conversation here and have included screen shots of the initial 8 Tweet thread at the end of this post.

The basic gist is:

  • Failure happens in medical situations;
  • This mostly isn’t due to ‘deliberate’ acts;
  • Situations are frequently complex with high levels of risk and many unknowns;
  • The ‘system’ often has in built errors like inappropriate staff numbers, skill shortages or exhausted medics;
  • People on the receiving end of treatment are often very ill;
  • Some times failure is inevitable;
  • When things go wrong, people get blamed and held ‘accountable’;
  • Accountability and blame are usually associated with some form of  punishment or sanction;
  • This can have devastating effects on them, the people around them and throughout the rest of the system; and
  • This raises a question, is it easier to blame individuals than fix the system they are working in?

It’s the impact of  the ‘blame’ and punishment that really interests me. This is from two perspective:

  1. What people do about future failures; and
  2. How do you learn from these experiences?

Sweep it Under The Carpet Approach. Keith Grint from the University of Warwick talks about the ‘under the carpet’ approach to failure, which has been adapted from work by Robert Westrum of the University of Michigan. Basically, if something goes wrong; hide the evidence, or look for someone else to blame. This flow chart summarises perfectly.


For me, the act of looking for (and finding someone) to blame creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Once someone has experienced failure, and then the pain of blame and punishment, how are they going to react in the future?  Will they happily share the bad news or dive straight into this flowchart? Anyone in a position of power might want to ponder on that for a moment (and quietly dispose of the ‘Failure is not an option’ mug).

Behaviour is shaped by the preoccupations of management. Westrum in his earlier work described three broad organisational cultures in relation to how they interact with failure; Pathological, Bureaucratic and Generative. I’ve taken the explanations below from a paper by Patrick Hudson which explains the development of Health and Safety Culture in the Oil and Gas Industry (more of that in the next post).


The flow chart from Keith Grint essentially describes the Pathological Culture, you may have seen it in operation?

For the Generative Culture,  is is entirely possible that there are organisations (or groups of people within them) that are actually doing this.  I’m just not lucky enough to bump into them on a regular basis – with a few exceptions, including  Bromford Lab. It is worth following what Bromford Lab do as an example of well managed, intelligent failure. The fact that they work ‘in the open’ (see their Trello Board project website) is a pretty good indicator (in my view) of a Generative Culture.

I did mention learning from experience earlier and just wanted to emphasise something. Every buried failure is a buried opportunity to learn something and share that experience with others who might benefit from your experience. Just saying…

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Failure is real and inevitable in many situations. It’s how you respond that matters.
  2. Blame (and punishment) shouldn’t be inevitable. Deliberate failure is very rare. ‘Blaming and shaming’ will shape how people respond to future failures.
  3. Management preoccupations shape culture. If you’ve got a ‘failure is not an option’ mug – quietly get rid of it.

Here’s a link to the other things I’ve written about failure.

Here’s the David Oliver Twitter thread that prompted this post.



About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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