Can Failure Lead to Success?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
–Thomas Edison






When does not receiving approval for an approach constitute a success?

The team has been working for six months on a strategic plan for two of NASA’s key facilities in Houston.  This week marked the culmination of that effort, where we presented our plan before key Agency executives for review and approval.  We spent months developing the plan and most recently completed a series of reviews in Houston before heading to DC for the final review this week.

Edison’s quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work…” came to mind immediately as the executives were asking us questions about our strategic approach.  The team demonstrated that it did due diligence to the approach we proposed, exemplified by the details and supporting rationale we shared.  As the conversation ensued, the team felt validated that we brought forward the best possible plan under a particular set of assumptions and guidance.  From the Agency executives, we received frank feedback and a new set of guidance.  All of them thanked us for the due diligence and creativity we demonstrated in our approach.

Where rocket science meets public space policy, the trade space of possible solutions is quite large.  Given the uncertainties we are facing in the near future with shuttle retirement, a new NASA Administrator, an Augustine commission that can suggest who knows what, and no clear announced space policy from the Obama administration, we are faced with an extremely challenging situation.  I strongly believed my team performed well, which I felt was validated by the words from the Agency executives.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my own performance as a leader afterwards.  Between conversations with a key mentor at NASA HQ afterwards, sipping on a beer while waiting for my plane at National, looking out the window during the flight home, and conversations with my team, I reviewed the experiences of the last six months and asked, “How did I do? What can I do better next time?”

Really, there is always room for improvement.  Yet in the big picture, I needed to go through this process – in fact, all of us needed to go through this process – to set the stage for the bigger success to come.  Is that a failure? Perhaps of the specific strategy we proposed, yet not for the end goal.  We can rally around the feedback and new guidance we received, build upon our previous work, and develop an altered strategic plan that will provide the best value to NASA and continue to demonstrate strong stewardship of the American taxpayer dollar.  It is that fact that renews my determination to lead the team through the next stage of development, and renews the team’s faith in me to lead them.  That is success.

Can Failure Lead to Success?