Monday, September 5, 2011

Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz

There are no surprises in Gene Kranz's Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. You get probably just what you expect: a detailed look back at NASA's space program from one of the men who basically invented the job of flight controller and then succeeded at it. You have to admire their achievements.

A couple of quotes are worth repeating.  With respect to the infamous Apollo 13 mission Kranz writes "But this is the nature of our business - to live with risk." One might say that current NASA has become risk intolerant.

There are scenes in the movie Apollo 13 (and other movies of that ilk) where groups of controller types jump up, shout, high five, belly bump and do everything but kiss to celebrate successes.  Regarding that, Kranz writes "if a controller ever did that before the mission was over and the crew was on the carrier, that would be the last time he sat at a console."

Recalling the winding down of the Apollo program in the 1970s, Kranz writes "Leadership is fragile. It is more a matter of mind and heart than resources, and it seemed we no longer had the heart for those things that demanded discipline, commitment, and risk." One might say that things haven't changed that much with our political leadership.

That's a lot of snarky political shots. Let's end with the foundations of mission control as copied shamelessly from page 393 of the book.  Try to imagine applying them to your job.

Foundations of Mission Control

  • To instill within ourselves these qualities essential for professional excellence:
    • Discipline: Being able to follow as well as lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.
    • Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.
    • Confidence: Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear and hesitation before we can succeed.
    • Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.
    • Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.
    • Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the ability of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all.
  • To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.
  • To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort.