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Topics: Aerospace and Defense, Innovation, Leadership
Could Gene Krantz be an Agilist?
With the 50 year commemoration of the landmark celebration of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, we are only 1 year away from the 50 year commemoration of the aborted mission of Apollo 13 landing on the moon.
Apollo 11 brought us this memorable line: "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind!" While, Apollo 13 brought us an equally memorable line: "Houston, we've got a problem."
However, there is another memorable line from the Apollo 13 mission. That line was something that I had in my signature block for many years. That line, by Gene Krantz (Apollo 13 Flight Director), is: "Failure is not an option."
As I am currently studying for my PMI-ACP certification exam, I struggle a bit with the phrase "Fail Fast, Fail Early". I think of Gene Krantz as a Project Manager with a mindset of a waterfall style Project Manager, who knew how to switch gears and change his mindset to that of an Agile style Project Manager, however still sticking to the "Failure is not an option" doctrine.

I welcome all comments and thoughts.
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The fail fast, fail early is like working in a sandbox were what you do is not going to greatly impact anybody else but yourself. When you scale this philosophy up to incorporate mission critical systems that include mission control systems you realise that this does not bode well. Any fragments of this thinking should of being left on the drawing board as you dealing with peoples lives and reputations and it almost sounds like trivializing the risk that people are undertaken for everybody else. As a result of this level of trust it is returned by taking the philosophy of Gene Krantz of failure is not an option.
What we today call "Agile" has very deep roots in mid-century Aerospace R&D. They had very complex problems to solve and needed new ways to approach their work. It's no coincidence that you connect the dots between the ACP and NASA.

I don't think "Failure is not an option" has anything to do with how Agile NASA was at the time of Apollo 13. It was part of NASA's culture; an understanding that all options were open except mission failure. (Interestingly, Gene Krantz didn't use that quote until his character used it in the movie. But he gave similar directives about project safety.) "Fail Early" would still be acceptable, if "early" meant a non-fatal flaw discovered before launch. And failure was always a possibility- as we know with President Nixon's alternate speech for Apollo 11- it just wasn't an option for the engineers.

This could lead to some interesting conversations about what project failure means, regardless of whether that project uses a predictive or adaptive life cycle. Most projects have one aspect that is supreme to all others, such as a project deadline or fixed budget constraints.
There is a big missunderstanding in the community about "fail fast, fail faster". Agile is not about fail. Agile is about fail consciously. In fact, I have the opportunity to take a one week workshop with Jeff Sutherland when he publised the book "Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time" which was created around that concept. Few people know that Agile was created based on Barry Bohem´s Spiral Model. If you search for the paper and read it you will understand the basement about "fail consciously". On the other side, if you read the genesis of Agile (in software in the case you are talking about) you will find that "failure is not an option" is a driver because it is a driver in quality environments and Agile was created with basement in quality (the father of Agile in software is Tom Gilb with his book "Principles of software engineering management" (1988)). But it does not mean you will not fail because as you know all you do is in the field of probabilities mainly when you do not have knowledge. And here other pillar and foundation of Agile: knowledge management. I have studied the Apollo project a lot including I have the opporutnity to meet engineers that were part and the Apollo project was an example of an Agile project. Mainly regarding "fail consciously",
I was interviewing for a BA role at a major university. They asked me what my biggest failure was. I realized they were using a flawed process, so I explained the concept of early failure and inspection techniques. They were unfamiliar with the concepts and furiously took notes.

The idea behind "fail fast" is to be creative in exploring solutions, knowing that some ideas aren't workable. Quickly identify the flaws in each possible solution and discard those that aren't sufficient. THEN start development. That way you don't have major failures at the end of the project, like the university did.

"Failure is not an option" was appropriate for a situation where the project is in-flight and lives were on the line.
I agree with Bob that failure is different before and after you go live. Agile is about reducing risk. How do you do that?

You do experiments. You do pilots. These are meant as learning opportunities. We often learn more from our failures than our successes.

I am reminded of Thomas Edison's quote about the worth of work.

"I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work. I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

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