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Failure, innovation and mission success

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Venture capitalists seeking the next great innovation, the next Google, Facebook or game-changing technology, only achieve one success in every 10 investments...that number shocks me. Successful venture capitalists all have one thing in common: many failures for each success. Despite many failures, leading investors succeed because they fail strategically. They understand that failure will happen and thus integrate failure into their business strategy. Other great innovators have followed this model. The Wright brothers tried numerous designs before succeeding. But, where their competitors built full-size models, the Wright's used small-scale gliders to test designs. This allowed them to recover quickly from failure. As Thomas Edison noted, "I have not failed 10,000 times--I've successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."

Accepting failure as a natural consequence of innovation collides headlong with our mission of launching our Nation's prized national security space systems with 100% success. We go to great lengths to ensure each launch is successful and our track record of success over more than a decade speaks for itself. Unlike venture capitalists, we do not--and cannot--plan to fail. We can, however, build our organizations to be ready should it occur. Nassim Taleb, one of the world's foremost experts on risk, describes "antifragility" as the ability to not only respond to a shock, but to get better in responding. Unfortunately, he offers no recipe to become antifragile, and we are left to infer a method ourselves.

From launch rehearsals to mass casualty exercises, we train and prepare for a variety of shocks. Through this training, we prepare ourselves to be agile when a shock to the system occurs. Yet such training prepares us only for those shocks we can foresee. We may remain vulnerable to shocks we cannot foresee. Seeking and achieving a deeper understanding of our individual jobs and responsibilities beyond checklist steps is an important way to be ready for events that stress our teams in unexpected ways. An acute understanding of why we do something preserves our ability to be nimble in the face of new threats especially when a threat does not fit neatly within a particular procedure or checklist.

We reinforce our agility when we interact with teammates outside our areas of expertise, allowing us to see and solve problems in new or different ways. As we successfully solve new problems collectively, we will learn, mature and innovate as we find new ways to solve old problems. As we build our expertise, we will become more agile and identify further opportunities to innovate--while not sacrificing our goal of 100% mission success.

The Air Force's newly released strategy, America's Air Force: A Call to the Future, defines agility as "the counterweight to the uncertainty of the future and its associated rapid rate of change." Our counterweights will be our core preparation, continuing to reach a deeper understanding of our functions, and a cross-disciplinary approach to accomplishing the mission. These counterweights will ensure our continued success as today's most innovative space launch and landing team.