Failure is Not an Option. Except it is and You’re Not Helping Things.

(I’ll let you borrow my pet-peeve glasses for a moment, if you’ll just follow me as I track down an old prey of mine.)

“Failure is not an option!” an impassioned executive cries.

Between the time I started to write this post and the time I published it, I’m certain that a few dozen people in a wide variety of roles and circumstances across this globe spouted those words with the fervor of any politician hoping to sway their constituents.

In a personal effort to speak more simply and accurately, I’m trying to remove non-words and anti-think from my vernacular. This seems like a good place to start. When someone says “Failure is not an option” I believe they most likely mean a number of things:

  • “I intensely do not want this situation to end in failure.”
  • “I want to impress on all of those involved that this is a very serious situation.”
  • “If this situation ends in failure it will result in severe negative consequences.”
  • “I will rule by force and vague threats to see that a situation ends in success.”
  • “I am a big person and can say scary things because rawr!”

Say What You Mean

“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.” –Horton the elephant

“Suffer from Diarrhea.” –Coors Beer

Language can be the determining factor between enjoying a cold one and a biohazard situation. I believe that precision should be taken to make sure that most of what we say is actually contributing to a situation in a meaningful way. The alternative is misunderstandings.

If someone says “Failure is not an option”, while there are many interpretations of that phrase, the ultimate meaning is anything but what the phrase means on the face. However, the reality in which we live is that failure is really an option. It’s always an option. It’s always available and looming around all corners. The goal is to deftly choose the best options to avoid that one damning and ever-present possibility.

Why Does it Matter

To some of us, it matters in three ways:

  1. Saying “failure is not an option” is strongly implying stupidity on the part of the audience. You really think the listening audience believes that? You think they’re too dumb to see the facts and interpret them correctly?
  2. Saying “failure is not an option” makes a person seem completely out of touch with reality and does not foster an environment of facts. Better to face truth and be willing to say “Failure will kill us all with nasty big pointy teeth” than start telling fairy tails.
  3. Saying “failure is not an option” is a gross display of hubris with nothing to back it up. You can not see the future and do not know what a second may bring. You can do your best, prepare for the worst, and perform admirably. You cannot, however change a situation by sheer force of will and speaking an obnoxious shibboleth. It’s one thing to think positive, and another to be hackneyed.

A Suggested Alternative

Be factual. Be open.

An environment of reality and openness is simultaneously highly valuable and very uncommon. It’s the little things that count towards a culture and building a team. Facing the possibility of failure will help explore more solutions, make the consequences more real than any vague and empty threat ever could, and show respect to listeners as being rational, thinking adults.

Don’t fall prey to empty speech. Be forthright. Failure is not an op…

…I’ll show myself out.

(And an excellent post that is a spin-off / partial response to my post: IT Science vs. IT Religion. Again )


  1. RobM

    March 5, 2013 at 3:41 am

    Totally agree Wesley. I’d add one more thing to this – my all too usual reply to “failure is not an option” is “so why are you budgeting as if it’s the outcome you want”. Part of being open is being realistic throughout all stages of a project.


  2. […] me to another friend’s post – the nubby sysadmin posted about a culture of “failure is not an option” that he’s seen happen in various projects. If you read the Mr Angry posts I mentioned […]


  3. […] of poor, badly tested infrastructure have they used for their servers? Did an EA executive thunder “failure is not an option” at their subordinates? Did someone refuse to consider the risks, or work on contingency plans due […]


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