Failure is an option

When it comes to project management failure is sometimes an option. Many of us have pulled ourselves from the smoking ruins of a project to say, “What happened?” and “How did this not succeed?”

failure success
Credit: Pixabay

In just about any movie or book that includes a military presence, there is more than likely a line of dialogue by the hero or General to the effect of, “Failure is NOT an option!” Perhaps, when aliens are taking over the earth and probably going to destroy all of humanity that could arguably be true. However, I think when it comes to project management that is not true… not by a long shot. Many of us have pulled ourselves from the smoking ruins of a project to say, “What happened?” and “How did this not succeed?”

A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which reviewed 10,640 projects from 200 companies in 30 countries and across various industries, found that only 2.5% of the companies successfully completed 100% of their projects. A study published in the Harvard Business Review, which analyzed 1,471 IT projects, found that the average overrun was 27%, but one in six projects had a cost overrun of 200% on average and a schedule overrun of almost 70%. And we all have heard about large construction projects -- the Channel Tunnel, Euro Disney, and Boston's "Big Dig" -- that ended up costing almost double their original estimate. 

The great thing about success is that it encourages us to take more risks, try more, innovate more, and engage more. The natural outcome is that there will be times when we overreach, commit too many resources, and don’t perform the appropriate risk analysis. That’s when failure might occur.  And that’s when we close the project and shake our heads in disappointment.  So, what’s the solution? Do we simply play it safe? Do we not take on projects where there is a great amount of risk?

The short answer?  No.

The longer answer? Heck no!

I have had more successful projects than failed projects, but I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have had the winning season without the losses. Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that helped me when I had to tell Sr. Management that the project was finished, and unsuccessfully finished at that.

Risk management is real

One of my fellow PMPs, J Ashley Hunt, referred to herself as a “catastrophic thinker.”  In other words, she was always looking for the “what ifs.” I kiddingly called her Monte Carlo.  It’s not like I didn’t do Qualitative and Quantitative Risk Analysis, instead I didn’t foresee any of those medium impact risks occurring. In the Bible there’s a verse, “the little foxes spoil the vineyard.”  Yes, a big risk event can bring you down, but so can the death of a thousand little risks. Use your failed project and do some serious reverse risk analysis. At what point did things go south? Who and what policies were involved? Were there any warnings or triggers that might have gone unnoticed? Was the mitigation/transference/avoidance up to the task?

Lessons learned aren’t just on the exam

There’s a joke about how the answer on the PMP exam question of “What input is used for such and such?” is the WBS (work breakdown structure), and that the answer to “What is the primary output of such and such?” is lessons learned.  The other aspect is that lessons learned is not just a one-off meeting at the end of the project. I strongly believe that at each phase or major milestone, there should be a debriefing with your team. If your team is too large, then break it down into sub groups and then have those team leaders meet with you to discuss the gathered details. This ONE thing alone helped turn around a development project I was working on with Cisco.

The bottom line is don’t get down on yourself too much. Shake off the dust, admit what you did wrong, and then get back into the game. Many of you have probably heard about the man who was defeated for state legislature, failed in his business a year later, lost his sweetheart two years later, had a nervous breakdown a year after that, tried again for Congress and lost, was rejected to be a land officer, defeated for US Senate twice, and lost his re-nomination for Congress. That man was Abraham Lincoln. He was elected President two years after his final Senatorial defeat. Failure is an option.

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