Learning from NASA’s ‘scrub’: lessons for customer management

Success in business and technology is often preceded by a ‘scrub’ or a failure. But rather than being the end of the process, this may be a launchpad for greater success. Find out how this applies in customer management.


Many of us learned a new English term this year: the ‘scrub’. It’s how rocket scientists refer to the call-off or rescheduling of a space mission when the rocket is already on the launchpad, and it’s happened at least twice this year with NASA’s Artemis I project.

To many of us non-rocket-scientists, postponing the launch of Nasa’s most powerful ever rocket sounded like a ‘fail.’ But those who know about space exploration say it was no big deal at all. In fact, they said, it’s an excellent example of how success often starts with mistakes or failures. They added that those who work in business, public sector, or other areas could learn a lot from it.

With this in mind, we started thinking about the lessons this might hold for brands and customer management. And there are plenty of them.



Before we get to customer management, let’s briefly go back to rocket science. NASA’s new rocket, or Space Launch System (SLS), was supposed to take off in late August, tasked with launching the space capsule Orion around the back of the moon. Just a few minutes before the scheduled take-off, the launch was ‘scrubbed’, due to a liquid hydrogen leak. The next planned launch, in early September, was also scrubbed at short notice. At the time of writing, NASA was looking at new dates in late September 2022 (you can follow progress at https://www.nasa.gov/artemis-1).

Throughout the postponements, NASA was open about the issues, with website blogs and news updates on what it planned to do next (replace a seal). The tone was calm, informative, and transparent – itself a lesson for businesses facing challenges.

Commentators were also calm, pointing out, for example, that in 2009 it took six attempts over four weeks to launch the space shuttle Endeavour. The detail required to take millions or billions of dollars of combustible equipment into space can take a while to get 100% right.



The wider learning point from all this is that perfection, or success, doesn’t necessarily happen first time. The economist and broadcaster Tim Harford, well-known to Financial Times readers and TED talk audiences, wrote a great book about this called Adapt: Why success always starts with failure

Harford makes the point that challenges cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions… instead, we must adapt in order to prosper. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” he writes. “What matters is how quickly the leader is able to adapt.” 

He also notes that successful companies are happy to embrace ideas or projects fail, a good example being the Google “20% time” rule, where employees were encouraged to spend 20% of their time on ideas they thought would benefit Google. There was an acceptance that many of these ideas would come to absolutely nothing. 


Some of the world’s best-known companies have had their ups and downs in terms of great or not-so-great ideas. Apple launched and then discontinued the Newton MessagePad before coming up with the iPad. Microsoft launched something called the Zune in the early 2000s which you’ve probably never heard of. Ditto Facebook’s mobile app Home never caught on with users. And then, of course, there is Coca-Cola’s disastrous launch of ‘New Coke’ in the 1980s, still used as a case study in marketing and business degrees for how not to do things.

Despite these missteps, all those companies went on to or continued to, thrive. They learned from failures and problems and used them to succeed better.



A famous example of ‘success by mistake’ is penicillin. Its inventor Alexander Fleming returned from holiday to find mold growing on a Petri dish he had discarded and saw that this mold was dissolving the bacteria around it. That was the start of the production of penicillin, which went on to prevent millions of deaths from bacterial infection.

Other inventions that happened by mistake include the post-it note (in producing a weak glue, rather than the intended stronger one, the researcher made something more valuable) and the microwave (the by-product of a radar research project). 

Of course, what’s important here is not so much the mishap but the business know-how that ‘adapted’ it – spotting the opportunity, commercializing it, and taking it global. Thousands of ‘mishaps’ haven’t made it through this process.



Not every wrong turn morphs into triumph, and there are numerous business school papers warning against the ‘myth of failure’. Here’s a view from the Harvard Business School: “Learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to detect and analyze failures effectively are in short supply in most companies.”

But Tim Harford, in his Adapt book, has some advice here, noting some of the obstacles and behaviors that prevent people from learning from mistakes or failures: denial, self-destructive behavior, and remembering past mistakes as triumphs. He also gives other advice for adapting successfully:

  1. Make sure failure is survivable (e.g. when innovating, don’t bet everything on it working)
  2. Be willing to fail a lot (e.g. remember the Google 20% time approach)
  3. Spot a failure and fix it early.



We promised you at the beginning that we would relate this to customer management, and we’re going to focus on two main points here.

The first is a general lesson about the importance of adaptation, of recognizing that innovation may not go to plan, of being transparent about what hasn’t worked, and of being open to chance discoveries. This understanding and openness is especially important in customer management, given the rapid pace of change in consumer expectations and digitalization.

Secondly, there are customer management examples where blips or issues in the customer journey can actually be used to improve things. The classic example is customer care, after-sales service, and technical support. 

On the one hand, each ‘failure’ in the customer journey, such as an appliance breakdown or a customer not understanding how to use the appliance, can reduce customer satisfaction and loyalty, especially if it takes several calls to resolve the issue. 

On the other hand, by handling these issues well – for example, achieving first contact resolution – and focusing on the root cause,  brands can foster continuous improvements in their products or services and strengthen customer relationships and loyalty, turning customers into advocates. Comdata achieves this for brands in a number of ways, from optimizing processes to using ‘augmented agents’ who have the tools and technology at their fingertips to resolve the issue quickly, such as remote visualization technologies that allow them to see the product. 

No business wants anything to ‘fail’ or go wrong in the customer journey, just as no one at NASA wants to scrub a launch. But at the same time, these negatives may be part of ‘normality’ and very effectively transformed into a positive – a safer moon mission, a new invention, or a stronger relationship between brand and customer. Not every success starts with failure, and nor does every problem lead to success, but it certainly can do!


We’d be happy to tell you how Comdata can help you use technical support and customer care to increase customer loyalty and long-term value. Contact us to find out more!


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