Clichés are nothing more than overused and abused catchphrases that demonstrate your inability to contribute an original thought to the discussion, and few things drive me to drink like someone who speaks in clichés. To avoid having “air in the conversation,” you inexplicably present commonly used jargon without thought or remorse while ignoring the fact that your audience is looking at you the way a dog looks at a ceiling fan (visualize a blank stare up with drool coming from the corner of your mouth). Let it be known that no one in your office responds to your cliché with any level of enthusiasm or sense of profound epiphany. In other words, it’s wasted.
You can’t “give 110 percent” — to try just shows you suck at math. “It is what it is” will always be the case because it will never be “what it isn’t.” And “thinking outside of the box” is so common that speaking it just shows you don’t know how to do it (behold the irony). But the cliché I want to discuss is “failure is not an option.” Despite the title of his book suggesting otherwise, Apollo 13 flight director, Gene Kranz, never spoke the phrase, “failure is not an option.” If this is news to you, you’re wrong, and I thank you for making my point – failure is an option.
Who Uses this Cliché?
In almost every case, someone who uses this cliché has a collection of trendy business books on their shelf and a wide assortment of management seminar “Certificates of Completion” hanging in their cubicle or office wall. With all the makings of a Dilbert comic strip, these people are fodder for our amusement.
Some people use “failure is not an option” because they believe it instills fear in people, and fear is a strong motivator. The good news: It motivates employees. The bad news: It motivates them to be average (more on this later). Regardless, if you lead this way, you now know why we never invite you out for a beer.
Others live in a delusional alternative universe where there are no winners and losers and take the statement quite literally. They say, “failure is not an option,” because they simply don’t believe it exists. People like this give trophies to children who finish in last place just because they tried and then tell them they are as good as those who came in first. Despite being voted “most enthusiastic” at the company retreat, no one likes this person except the last-place kid who got an award.
And then there is the person who has never really tried. They do just enough to get by and aspire to a life of mediocrity. Failure is not an option because the motto of this person is, “If I don’t try, I never fail.” It’s akin to, “If I never play the game, I never lose.” Coincidentally, when you try hard enough not to fail, you also never give enough to really succeed. Not coincidentally, when you strive for this level of mediocrity, you will achieve it. People like this have never done anything bold enough to be interesting, which means they are boring and all of their stories suck.
It’s safe to say that you don’t wish to self-identify with any of the above. For that reason, you need to stop speaking this way, but there are good business reasons for doing so as well. Furthermore, failure should not only be an option, but it should also be tolerated.
The Message it Sends
“Work hard enough to not get fired.” It’s not exactly the kind of “rah-rah” material I’d expect to find in a book on how to win friends and influence people, but you will find this coming from managers who lead with the fear of the stick versus the reward of the carrot (that was dangerously close to being a cliché). If you’re expected to produce success, you can’t get it by inspiring people to do just enough to keep their jobs. You have to be OK with failure and foster an environment where “we learn more from our failures than our successes.”
“Failure is not an option” tells others, “You’d better not screw this up.” I’m sure if you sit back and think of all the management techniques you’ve ever learned, this has never been one of the takeaways. Said more concisely, it sends the wrong message.
It Takes Risk
Of course, nothing is ever a sure thing, but to achieve great things, requires risk. And with risk comes the possibility of failure. This is the paradox of the corporate management scheme. “We need to be great, but to do so involves risk, and we can’t take risks because failure is not an option!” Do you hear how stupid this sounds? Now you know why I drink.
Some greatness is the result of happenstance and accident, but you can’t exactly set the goals of an organization nor lead a team of employees on a business plan of “I hope something great accidentally happens for us today.” Speaking from experience, accidental success isn’t all that common, despite being the cynical namesake for my company, Accidental Success Media LLC. Real success involves taking a risk.
Standing Out Versus Blending In
To take an existing initiative and improve it by 5 percent requires very little risk, but if you are successful, no one will notice. We establish objectives for growth and improvement, but if no one notices, what have we gained? Companies like putting together five-year plans and “Top 10 Initiatives” lists, but those are arbitrary numbers with no foundation. Digressing for a moment; isn’t it odd that no one sets out to create a list of six, nine or 11 objectives? All of our lists are round numbers like five or 10, or three (OK, three isn’t a round number, but we use it all the time). Regardless, a list of 10 goals is just as arbitrary as 11. The point of this is to ask the question, why do we aim to improve 10 things marginally and not get noticed, rather than strive to do one thing amazingly better and have everyone notice? The reason is that we focus on the number of things we’re working on rather than the results, and working on 10 things doesn’t have a high failure rate, but being awesome at one thing just might.
I know of no manager who encourages his team to blend in, but if “failure is not an option,” that is exactly what you foster. And while you’re blending in with your modest gains here and there, you’ve failed to realize your full potential, proving the point once again that failure is an option. If you’re still unconvinced, consider this: The result of taking a big risk and coming up short is almost always greater than the collective sum of marginal improvements.
What Beer Taught Me
For 50 years, beer was a commodity in the U.S. and at the low point, only 88 breweries were making the same watered-down, tasteless swill that needed to be served ice cold (thank you, HARDI, for refrigeration). There was nothing exceptional about beer in the U.S., and it all tasted the same. It was mass produced in factories where breweries competed on the basis of using swimsuit models and spokespeople to convince you that their product made you better looking and far more interesting to members of the opposite sex. In other words, they lied to us, and we bought it because no one was willing to risk failing by selling an alternative.
Then something changed. People returned from their travels around the world and realized that not only was the world a different place, but there was a world of different beer. With the legalization of home brewing in 1979, people started experimenting in their kitchens, making beer with something that was noticeably absent in all the other beers on the market — flavor! Beers were being made with (what was at the time) an obscene amount of hops and added fruits and spices to their recipes. Styles were created where there was no style. They didn’t just improve on the existing beer market by 5 percent, they completely changed the market 100 percent. Rather than opening another factory and making American Light Lager, they opened their garage and inspired home brewing, which inspired micro brewing, which inspired the current craft brewing market.
Today, there are more than 4,000 breweries in the U.S., and three new brewing companies are opening every two days. This all happened because there were those who were bold enough to use expensive ingredients and went up against fierce competition. And while many breweries failed, others succeeded. As we enjoy the beers of those who did succeed, remember: Failure was an option for them, too, but they took the risk anyway. Had failure not been an option, no one would have ever tried to change the brewing industry, and we’d all still be drinking our grandfather’s beer.
Why Change Now?
We like role models and stories of inspiration. We use people as examples. We look to those who have tried, failed and eventually found success, and we lift them up on proverbial pedestals as the shining example for what motivates us to do better. We don’t try to inspire greatness by suggesting we can be lucky like people who win the lottery, and we don’t suggest that we can be great like those who are born of wealth and fame (aka, “The Lucky Birth Certificate Club”). To do so would suggest an endorsement of the accidental success model.
Instead, we look at those who’ve overcome great obstacles. Dare I say, we look at those who have found success, but only after failing. And why? Because they are the example we want our people to look to. We say things like, “It’s only failing if we stop trying,” “If we fail, let us fail falling forward,” “We fall to learn to pick ourselves up,” “We didn’t fail, we found success through a series of errors,” “Failure builds character,” and, “If we never fail, then we never know how much we can really achieve.” Then, then we have the audacity to look at our co-workers and subordinates and provide the directive, “Failure is not an option”? If you’re confused, then you are part of the problem. But if this makes you angry, you might be part of the solution.
I’m not suggesting that you carelessly chase an idea like a child chasing a shiny red ball out into traffic — that’s stupid and the equivalent of “throwing yourself under a bus” (Yes, I know what I just did there — I wanted to see if you’re still paying attention). I’m also not talking about flying a kite in a thunderstorm — that’s already been done. But consider how many things wouldn’t have happened if “failure is not an option” prevailed. We’d still be sitting by candlelight drinking bland beer.
If you don’t take risks and you seek modest goals, it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail because no one will notice. But if you want to be noticed for success, you have to accept that you might have to take responsibility for failing. So what are you going to do? Work during the week and grab a beer at happy hour Friday celebrating your indentured servitude, or go to the pub at noon Monday, grab a beer, and come up with the next big idea that will get you noticed? No matter which you decide, failure is an option, and success is not guaranteed, so why not grab that beer and take that risk? You might actually succeed.