Saturday, January 30, 2010

Failure is Not an Option

Gene Kranz was a pioneer in the manned space program and was involved with NASA for over three decades. In his book, Failure is Not an Option, Kranz recounts an insider’s view of manned space flight from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. As a flight director, he often provided stability and a cool head in the midst of crisis. Kranz describes a macho, patriotic, and dedicated environment that stayed the course during a period when there was great tumult in American society—the Vietnam War, assassination of leaders, the struggle for civil rights, protest, and political infamy. Although Kranz certainly considers himself a tough guy, he was and is a very religious man who was deeply touched by the reading from Genesis 1 during the Apollo 8 mission as well as the death of colleagues.

I read this book primarily as a case study in leadership and found plenty of insights there. Kranz writes, “With only the tools of leadership, trust, and teamwork, we contained the risks and made the conquest of space possible.” Failure is Not an Option provides plenty of examples of all three.

For Kranz, a leader does not shrink from presenting a challenge or making a decision. When the crisis of Apollo 13 became clear and that the lunar mission had become one of survival, Kranz told his team, “Flight control will never loss an American in space. . . You’ve got to believe that this crew is coming home.”

Although he was often the final voice in making a decision, Kranz practiced teamwork and used all of the human resources at his disposal. He believed in his people and demanded that they to be the best. He learned early on that “learning by doing” was the only way that controllers would be become smart enough to handle all the things thrown at them. They practiced simulations, learned from their mistakes, and debriefed every mission thoroughly. He understood that a good leader must “always hire people smarter and better than you are and learn with them.”

As a leader, Kranz set high standards for himself and his team. A sign in his office noted, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater extent than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.” He later added “ignorance” to this motto.

He made clear that “the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in trying, we did not give it our best effort.” Kranz called upon flight controllers to be tough and competent. To be tough meant “we are forever accountable for what we do or fail to do.” To be competent meant that “we will never take anything for granted.”

With the lives of astronauts in the hands of the teams in Mission Control, Kranz realized that nothing less than the maximum effort would assure success. One of the memorable moments in the movie Apollo 13 is Kranz (played by Ed Harris) saying, “Failure is not an option.” His perspective was that a controller would not give up until he had an answer or another option. He proudly noted, “Generating options is our business.”

Although he believed in his people, he did not feel the same about the technology they handled: “It isn’t equipment that wins the battles; it is the quality and determination of the people fighting for the cause in which they believe.” He understood that “the human factor allows us to achieve things that technology alone cannot.”

Gene Kranz was a technically oriented person who drew upon on his background as a fighter pilot to build a team. Even more, he was a person who was willing to learn from others while challenging them and himself to the next level. In Failure is Not an Option, he shares his rich experience with us.

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