The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
SpaceX Falcon 1 launch
While the inaugural flight of the Falcon 1 was a failure, it has turned into a major learning event for SpaceX. (credit: SpaceX)

We need more failures

An unusual advertisement appeared in a London newspaper in 1910:

WANTED: Volunteers for a hazardous journey. Small wages.
Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger.
Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

Sir Ernest Shackleton was recruiting adventurers for his expedition to locate the South Pole. Now, with minimum editing, the same advertisement might serve to recruit people for an expedition to Mars. Naturally, we would hope that such a mission would be successful. Shackleton’s mission failed after his ship was crushed in the pack ice. But we celebrate his heroic leadership and tenacity which resulted in the rescue and safe return of all his men. The same can be said of the exemplary leadership of Eugene Krantz during the high tension of Apollo 13’s return to Earth. Today, these failures are major sources of learning and are studied by managers around the world as they go about developing their own skills as leaders. That’s why we need failure—it’s how we learn. And the emerging space industry needs it, too.

It would be wrong to call for more failures caused by poor workmanship or downright carelessness. The key point is to plan for failures, value the learning they provide, and act on what has been learned.

Think about the experience of SpaceX and its recent failure to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. No doubt the team would have preferred success. But, at T-minus 1 second they had a pound of theory and at T-plus 30 seconds they had a ton of practical experience. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the theory held good for the first 25 seconds. The failure developed over the last five seconds. Elon Musk’s large investment for a mere five seconds of learning seems foolhardy. However, the SpaceX team will have vastly increased its knowledge of what it has to do to be successful next time. The skeptics greeted the news of Falcon 1 with the usual “I told you so” reaction. They completely missed the point: SpaceX would have learned very little from a successful launch. There would have been no urgent reason to review the design of the rocket, people’s roles and responsibilities, the processes and procedures they used, or the overall project management. Arguably, SpaceX now has significantly more knowledge about launching rockets than other space entrepreneurs who have yet to fly.

It would be wrong to call for more failures caused by poor workmanship or downright carelessness. A Mojave launch and a Wilshire Boulevard landing merely annoys the public, irks the FAA, and creates vital bits of debris that will be traded on eBay within the hour. Planning for an emergency landing in an empty quarter is acceptable. The key point is to plan for failures, value the learning they provide, and act on what has been learned. The space industry is too young to drift into the risk-averse mentality of many large corporations. Instead, the pioneers must follow the strategy of the leading innovative companies: fail fast, often, and at the lowest possible cost.

With some failures, the lesson may be that you should quit the space industry and do something else. There is the possibility that you will have acquired some knowledge that can be licensed to other firms at greater profit than continuing with your own venture. Maybe the basic idea is sound, but your whole approach is wrong and it’s time to go back to square one and think it out anew. Of course, a failure may be catastrophic—if at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you—even so, others may learn something!

There are many space advocacy groups active now and consultants are gravitating to the new space industry to assist in lobbying the lawmakers. Much of this activity focuses on winning an equitable distribution of government business between the traditional space contractors and the new companies struggling to enter the fray. That’s reasonable. However, the most important concession that the pioneers need is official support for the freedom to fail. Perhaps the tough “no-fail” rules applied to NASA’s activities have been a significant reason why it has moved at glacial speed for so long. Meanwhile, the world of innovation has always followed the Microsoft Law: version 1.0 crashes; version 2.0 fixes some of the bugs; version 3.0 actually works! Space will be no different.

The space industry is too young to drift into the risk-averse mentality of many large corporations. Instead, the pioneers must follow the strategy of the leading innovative companies: fail fast, often, and at the lowest possible cost.

With all this talk of failure, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with success?” For sure, no company can survive for long unless it produces sustained success. The problem is that when something regularly works perfectly, we humans fall prey to deadly diseases—complacency followed by arrogance. When the rocket does blow up—which it will—we go into denial, making it harder, and taking longer, to learn the lessons. Even then we may resist learning and merely repeat what we did. There’s a saying in the business world: “To those whom the gods wish to destroy they first award forty years of success.” Maybe even three good launches in a year will do it.

Sustainable success needs an innovation-ready mindset. According to those who have studied the innovation process, you need to: think the unthinkable, be inquisitive, flexible, open to wacky ideas, take risks, and shun the cynics and know-it-alls. Thinking this way not only helps you design your own system for going into space, it will help you find potential customers who may have ideas that help to shape your business.

Take the case of 3M, regarded as a benchmark for its ability to constantly develop innovative products. The company has a long-held policy of allowing its R&D staff to spend up to 15% of their time working on any project that interests them personally—true “blue skying.” These people think the unthinkable and follow cranky ideas much as you do. They also accept that failure comes with the territory. Perhaps a discussion with these kindred spirits might produce some insights on potential markets for space-based experimentation and manufacturing that are worth gambling on to prove their viability. There are many firms and research institutions that have a similar approach to 3M. Talk to them.

Why do we, as individuals or as entrepreneurs, sometimes steer ourselves into failure? Because we make assumptions about how things work. Indeed, we are often so committed to our beliefs that we screen out any evidence that conflicts with them. Each of the new space companies is committed to its particular launch system and its method of developing it. Fair enough. But is there a more effective way of doing it, or a better alternative technology? Failing fast and often is the best way to surface and challenge our assumptions and leads us to make necessary, fundamental, even painful, choices.

Public safety notwithstanding, the words of Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, still hold good: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

Whenever we try to solve problems or reach a decision about a situation, we are likely to think in one of two ways: go with our gut feel, or take an analytical, unemotional approach. Either can lead to the wrong conclusion. What’s needed is a third way: thinking about our thinking. What assumptions are we using here? Is there any factual evidence to support them? What other options are we ignoring? When we assume, it can make an ASS of U and ME!

Honest failures that produce real learning are immensely valuable. There is no sure-fire way of eliminating failure. Even our best efforts may make something foolproof but not damn-fool proof.

Public safety notwithstanding, the words of Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, still hold good: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” This means learning how to iterate: plan what you’re going to do, do it, learn from it, make changes, and do it again. Round and round through umpteen iterations until you make it flawless. That seems to work for Toyota.

When Shackleton placed his advertisement in 1910 he was seeking to recruit 20 adventurers. He got 6,000 replies. Fast-forward and you’ll find us living in age where such risk is avoided: a sad, scared time where failure is unthinkable. The space pioneers need to carry the torch for failure and relish the idea of, “Constant danger – Safe return doubtful – Honour and recognition in case of success.”


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