Houston, We Have a Problem

‘Houston, we have a problem.’

Who can forget the memorable line uttered by Jim Lovell, played so ably by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, the movie based on NASA’s ill-fated mission to the moon in 1970. 

(Ok, so the actual line is –– ‘Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,’ but popular lore has shortened it a bit.)

If you don’t know the story, NASA’s 3rd attempt to land astronauts on the moon ended abruptly when an oxygen tank exploded, forcing the mission to be aborted mid-flight. The entire team (astronauts, mission control, NASA engineers, even the manufacturers) was then forced to problem-solve and improvise in an attempt to somehow nurse the damaged lander back home. 

Due to some combination of ingenuity, moxie, and probably a heaping dose of good luck, the crewmembers were able to navigate some TWO HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND MILES (not a misprint) back to earth with only a few bumps and bruises. 

Defining Success by Defining Failure

Was the Apollo 13 mission a failure or a success? Well, it depends on how you define each.

If judged solely by landing on the moon, then it was a complete and utter failure. Once the oxygen tank exploded, any hope of landing on the moon was lost and what was supposed to be a mission of discovery quickly turned into one of rescue.

The moon is a mere 238,900 miles from earth in case you were wondering …

But, if judged by the fact that the mission controllers were able to overcome a catastrophic failure that should have killed all aboard then the mission was a total success. The contingency plans, the redundancies built into the equipment, the engineer’s knowledge of the systems –– all of these factors contributed to the avoidance of the worst of all outcomes. 

If you ask NASA, they would probably say the mission failed. But if you ask the astronauts on board, I am sure they have a far more positive view of the outcome 

Is 99% Successful a Failure?

Generally speaking, humans don’t like nuance or complexity.

Why? Because it forces us to think. 

Ideas and outcomes that are neat and clean are far easier to process, and thus it is human nature to prefer win-lose or yes-no type observations.

But is life clean cut? Of course not. 

Despite our wishes, the line between success and failure is never neat and clean –– it is always blurred.

Those who embrace life’s inherent messiness always come out ahead.

When a Loss is a Win

Think about it:

  • What if a high school basketball team lost by 1 point to the Los Angeles Lakers? Would that be considered a failure? 
  • If your goal was to complete your first marathon in 4:00 and you finished in 4:01, would you consider it a failure? 
  • What if your goal was to sell 30 houses in your first year and you sold 29?
  • Or what if, when studying x-rays, you discovered microwave technology? (And yes, this is a true story)

You get the point. 

Any mission, initiative, or plan typically involves some stated objective –– and when we try and are unable to achieve the end goal, we view it as failure despite the numerous successes we achieve along the way.

It is unfortunate that we have been programmed to view the final outcome as the sole arbiter of success or failure when in reality, most outcomes are a lot more complex than we give them credit for. 

Binary or Gradient?

Outsiders see results. Insiders see process.

We tend to judge things by the final score and assume that the score is the story. If one person won and the other one lost, then that is all that matters, right?

Far from it.

Every game, initiative, plan, effort, or campaign is composed of hundreds (or more) steps along the way –– each of which contributes to the outcome. Is getting something 99% correct and 1% incorrect a failure? The least intelligent of us all would argue anything that doesn’t work out as planned is a failure. 

Outcomes tend to be binary (win-lose / black-white) but processes tend to be gradients / shades of gray. When someone tells you that something didn’t work but can’t tell you why, then yes, it was a failure. But if you can analyze the process and improve it, then failure is only a temporary setback and success is just around the corner.

Nelson Mandela summed it up best when he said, ‘I never lose, I win or I learn.’ 

The Focus on Process

In order to be successful in any type of business, an exclusive outcome / results focus will not lead you to the mountaintop. Success or failure is rarely in the final outcome, it is in the steps you take and the process you develop in order to create the results you seek.

Success isn’t an ‘event,’ it is a journey and any journey is based on thousands of steps –– with each one as important as the next. Getting 999 of 1000 steps correct isn’t a failure –– it is simply incomplete. Know the difference.

The process-oriented understand this.

Failing or Succeeding?

So ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you assuming that everything that didn’t work as planned was a failure or simply incomplete?
  • Are you tracking the process in such a way that you can identify the points where it broke down?
  • Are you making incremental improvements and trying again?

If you want to be successful, then you need to take the correct lessons from all of your efforts. When your resources are scarce (as all of our resources are, except maybe Jeff Bezos!), then failures, where no lessons are learned, are crippling.

Develop the mindset of a scientist who views everything as an experiment where observations and processes rule the day. Once you begin to build your business on improvable processes, then even your ‘failures’ have value.