Leadership Lessons: Failure IS an option

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Edward Phillips
  • 319th Civil Engineer Squadron commander
We have all heard the phrase failure is not an option. Failure is certainly an option, and one we need to become more comfortable with. Today's climate is one of diminishing resources. Sequestration and force management have cut our ranks and our checkbook while deployments tax both. To meet our nation's call we need to ensure we are doing the right things, and do them both efficiently and effectively. One way to stretch our resources is to take on risk. We have all heard of risk management, but how many have considered when you accept risk, you may fail? If failure is not an option, you also failed at managing risk.

We remember Thomas Edison for inventing the light bulb. He wasn't the only person working on this endeavor, and he had more than 6,000 failed tries before getting something to last for more than a few seconds. The failure itself is not important; it's the learning that happens and the next innovation or idea. If we attack our mission the same way, it may be successful, but never innovative. To grow and learn from innovation, we must manage risk to ensure the mission is protected. It is essential to balance risk with reward by knowing how to manage risk, when to manage risk, and at what level must the risk be accepted.

Managing risk does not mean eliminating it; to me it means balancing risk and reward by accepting the lowest risk for the desired outcome. Get the experts involved, form a team, analyze the mission, hazards, and implement controls are a few ideas. Brainstorming is important as not to stifle innovation, let the ideas flow. At the height of the surge in Iraq we determined we lacked the manpower to complete the required facility maintenance, before even getting to repairs or improvements. We spent a lot of time in planning what to do next. "Go slow to go fast" is a phrase taken from the racetrack. The fastest way around a corner is to brake hard, entering the turn slow and pick up speed as you accelerate out. (Drifting may look cool, but is the slowest way to change direction). After scrubbing about 15,000 maintenance actions we cut about half by accepting risk. Extending filter changes, or running systems until failure. We unquestionably considered the mission dependency of the facility when making the changes. In the year following our changes, our plan failed once. Air conditioning went down for an entire dorm due to clogged filters, as we extended the chilled water filter cleanings a little too long. It was a long week to get the system back up and running, but it allowed for another innovation...remove the 140 unit filters and install one for the facility. There is a ton of good reading on risk management, find a plan that works for you and make every dollar, and every hour count.

Planning is essential, but risk management must be applied before, during and after an event. Focus on mission effectiveness, and then go for efficiency. How do you achieve maximum combat capability while preserving assets? You need to set goals, and then set metrics to see how you are doing. Limits are good to protect against failure, but understand the risk you take and the second and third order effects. This is where our plan failed. We were exhaustive on the planning side, but had no controls to access how we were doing. Spot checks, analysis, or energy usage could have been used to see if the plan was successful in saving more than work hours. We met our initial goals, but had room for improvement. These techniques are not just for mission accomplishment, they work well on and off duty. Don't forget we assume risk in our personal life, take the time to make a plan and monitor its progress...and don't be afraid to manage failure or it will happen when you don't expect it.

As a leader it is important to take risk at the appropriate level, but also to empower others to be innovative and take risk in their duties. Again this means accepting failure from subordinates and developing a culture where innovation is rewarded. In the planning phase it is important to consider the worst outcome or how many may be impacted before determining if you can accept additional risk. Today's cars are safe, but safety features come at a price. Someone has done the math to see how much a human life is worth. Our profession is a dangerous one with inherent risks to life and property. In my squadron I encourage smart risk taking, but set limits. For example, taking risk to safety is a commander's prerogative. If the mission dictates violating a safety standard, the reward must be extremely high. Additionally, any Airmen, any Wingman has a duty to call it quits if they see something unsafe. Again, our business is fundamentally dangerous, but we have established processes that define what these limits are. Failure is not without its consequences and it is important to match the responsibility for the mission with the accountability of failure.

Failure is an option, but should be controlled and balanced with reward. I am amazed by the ideas our Airmen have, but they frequently are not empowered to do business smarter. This process can start with an idea, from any level to get started. No longer can we use resources to buy protection from risk at all levels, we must embrace failure by managing risk. We can't expect to reach new heights if we have a fear of falling. What have you done to enable innovation lately?