The Unforeseen Upside: Is SpaceX a Mere Project Folly or a Willingness to Risk and Fail?

It would be easy to dismiss Space X and Ocean Blue as the technical playthings of billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. But what if their follies lead to serious technical and project innovation because they are prepared to risk and fail – and what can we learn from their journey?

As technical innovators like Space X focus their ambitions on space exploration, there is much organisations worldwide can learn about their willingness to constantly stretch and fail.

Space X and its eccentric billionaire founder Elon Musk are known for taking enormous risks since the private US aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company was established in 2002. He has remained undaunted despite many of these risks not paying off.

Indeed, many of these risks have resulted in massive public failure. A notable example, for instance, is the high-profile 2016 explosion of his Falcon 9 rocket, which Musk celebrated with a series of tweets at the time.

As the tweets illustrated, Musk, far from being perturbed by the failure of the rocket, used it as a way to generate knowledge and reload for his next high-stakes project. This approach speaks for itself, with the company now on the verge of the third launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is set to blast off soon from Cape Canaveral carrying 24 satellites into orbit.

It’s become something of a cliché that embracing failure leads to success, but the difference in the case of Space X is that the company is willing to fail on such a momentous scale, despite the attendant potential for massive downside. The learnings here are numerous.

Breaking Down the Failure/Success Dichotomy

One takeaway for organisations from Space X’s radical approach to failure is to recognise that success and failure are more than a binary set. As Musk showed in the way he used the 2016 project failure to achieve even more ambitious goals — in the form of 18 successful launches the subsequent year — firms must go beyond the failure/success binary.

The potential breakthrough for companies willing to take this approach is a shift in mindset that facilitates the potential for future massive action. This is especially clear when it comes to disruptive companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Tesla, which all started life as bold and innovative ideas that involved big downside risk before coming to fruition.

The key positive from this paradigm shift, according to experts, is that it helps to bring innovative and untested ideas to completion, which inherently involves going on a journey where failure is always close by. However, as Musk keenly understands, the corollary is also true — companies unwilling to go out on a limb and push boundaries on the innovation side will be suffocated, which in itself can be hugely detrimental.

In this respect, Musk understands that there are many ways to find benefits through failure that yield greater future successes. This leads to a reframe of the idea of failure, which tends over time with proper organisational support, to change conservative mindsets within firms.

Accepting No Crystal Ball for Success

Another Musk learning is that taking boundary-pushing risks in the style of Space X also involves embracing the potential of failure right from the get-go.

For instance, when it comes to Tesla Motors, Musk had no idea how the venture would turn out but started anyway. This is clear from his statements at the time, revealing that he pushed ahead because, as he put it: “if something is important enough you should try even if the probable outcome is failure”.

“If you care about something, you should put every effort into following your dreams. At the same time, be ready in case it doesn’t work out. It’s easier to recover from a failure if you already have a backup plan,” he went on to say.

Constantly Stretching Leads to Unforeseen Upside

Additionally, as Musk knows, and psychologists have proven, being comfortable living with uncertainty makes people more open to possibility. With the increasing reliance on big data and algorithms, it can be easy to forget that innovation occurs with uncertainty. As Musk himself summarises, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough”.

In this context, it can help companies and business leaders to adopt strategies that stretch leaders while minimising risk. According to experts, successful project managers can achieve a sense of control in such an environment by gathering stakeholders, starting with small investments, preselling an idea, and working within tight budget constraints.

In addition, constantly stretching enables business leaders to ask questions they likely wouldn’t otherwise. These include what conversations you’d engage in that you’ve been avoiding, what actions you’d take that you aren’t taking now, and where do you need to step up to as a leader more boldly to open up the possibility for new opportunities.

So, while Space X’s overall mission may end up a technical and project folly, the undertaking by visionaries like Musk shows there’s a lot to learn about how to adopt an enduring approach to positive failure.

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