Sunday, November 18, 2007

Remembering Projects

Almost everyone likes to think back over their experiences and remember those projects that were successful. It is just human nature to somehow ascribe the outcome to our own efforts. And it is easy to dismiss the projects that don't make it as having been undone by things beyond our control. We love to put ourselves in the best light possible. We rarely like to celebrate our failures.

Today, Nov. 19th, marks two events that had very different outcomes. In 1959, Ford Motor Company announced that they were pulling the plug of the Edsel after only two years. Today also marks the successful landing of Apollo 12 on the moon in 1969. Either of these projects might have gone the other way. Imagine a successful Edsel that is still with us today and a failed Apollo 12. It could have happened. It almost did.

The Edsel has become synonymous with a product flop. People ascribe the failure to all sorts of things: ugly styling, quality problems, bad marketing, stupid name. But it is quite possible that the Edsel was the victim of bad timing. The car was begun in the early 1950's to allow Ford to better compete against GM. Ford needed a "middle" line that would sell against the Oldsmobile. Ford's Lincoln was an alternative to the Olds rather than the more upscale GM Cadillac. The Edsel was intended to move the Lincoln up and give Ford a stronger lineup.

The Edsel was introduced in late 1957. Within months, the country had gone into recession and big, gas guzzling cars lost popularity. American Motors had introduced the Rambler. Small and fuel efficient, it became the number three best selling car in the U.S. during the late 50's. The Edsel sat in the dealer's showrooms.

The recession may not have been the real reason for the Edsel's demise. I wonder, though, how people on the Edsel team feel? Do they think they were cheated out of a success story by the fates of the economy? Do they tell themselves it was a problem with squabbles in the executive suite (this was the period when Robert McNamara was bringing his "whiz kid" efficiency to Ford)? Do they tell their grandkids, "I worked on the Edsel and it was the highpoint of my career."? Somehow, I doubt it.

Now look at Apollo 12. Pete Conrad and Alan Bean became the third and fourth men in history to walk on the moon. But they might not have. When Apollo 12 was launched on November 14, 1969, it was raining. In fact, on the way into orbit, the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening knocking out the telemetry feeds that were vital to the mission. It was only quick thinking on the part of a mission controller and Alan Bean in the Command Module that allowed for a manual override at the last minute. Telemetry was restored and the mission did not have to be aborted (it was already moving into that flight mode at the time telemetry was reestablished). Apollo 12 was a great success. I am certain that the people who worked on that program recount their roles with great pride (as they should).

My point is that each of these stories could have turned out differently. Each was beset by circumstances beyond people's immediate control. One succeeded. One didn't. We tend to take credit for the ones that do. Sometimes we deserve the credit. But a lot of times we are just lucky. Or not.

Technology stories are like sports. We like to be associated with the winners. But some of the greatest advancements come from projects that didn't make it. But failure teaches, success rarely does. Maybe the Edsel launched new technology that made Ford a great success in other areas. I am sure we learned not to launch rockets in the rain. Maybe people should look back and feel good about the learning more than the outcome. Easy for me to say.

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We
often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do. He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

Samuel Smiles
(1812-1904, Scottish author)

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