How to learn from failure

For every successful project, there are many more that never make it. Project managers (P.M.s) spend a lot of their time failing. Yet there’s no reason to discount the time, effort and energy spent on a project when failure can actually be a learning experience. As the quote attributed to Thomas Edison, noted inventor, says, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

If everyone who failed never tried again, there wouldn’t be much in the world. What is learned from a project that didn’t work could inform a new effort that ultimately becomes a success. PMs need to take a similar approach when confronted with the unpleasant reality that a project, process or relationship has failed. Wrike, a project management software vendor, cited statistics that found only 64 percent of projects meet goals. P.M.s ought to have no illusions that failure is out there and waiting. It’s up to them to make it work eventually in their favor.

Plan for failure from the start

To underscore how inescapable failure is, 75 percent of I.T. professionals surveyed in 2011 once thought their projects were “doomed from the start.” Knowing that failure is always possible, project managers should essentially be planning for it. Not addressing the potential for unmet expectations is a fundamental oversight P.M.s cannot afford to make. While failure is not Plan A, or even Plan B, C, or D, there should be at least some measures prepared in the event of failure.

To a degree, P.M.s have to operate knowing that fortunes can always turn, even when there are no signs to portend disaster. Always be prepared for the worst; P.M.s that do so are responsive, innovative and decisive. Knowing they have plans in place may even help P.M.s steer around potential pitfalls. Setting expectations from the start means planning for results anywhere along the spectrum.

Look for what worked

There’s nearly always something that can be gained from failure, whether in process, intel or experience. Every time a project fails the path to success becomes clearer. The process of elimination narrows focus and may even inspire P.M.s to try new ideas they wouldn’t have first thought to try. Necessity is the mother of invention, and invention is a byproduct of failure.

Gathering data on the project after it’s failed should cover all aspects of the experience, from how time was spent to what steps were missed or where communication faltered. P.M.s will need to collect feedback from everyone involved. For example, a P.M may discover that a particular software solution being used created delays. Neglecting to revisit the reasons why a project failed is shortsighted and may hamper future efforts that could have benefited from the value of trial and error. Taking a look back may also help expose chronic inefficiencies, turning weaknesses into strengths.

Be honest and communicate

Accountability is important when failure occurs. It’s not a matter of assigning blame, but rather identifying faults and finding ways to correct. P.M.s should be able to depend on honest assessments from stakeholders and reports, and a project team that lacks proper communication or fears speaking out makes failure only more likely in the future. Without naming the problem, there’s no way P.M.s and employees can go about fixing it and bettering their chances for success.

Fostering a working environment wherein people feel comfortable about discussing why a project failed can spark productive conversations and brainstorms. Failure leaves a bad taste with everyone. Being able to wash that away with a collective cleansing is among the most important elements of getting over failure and using it for good later on.

Adapt to failure

One way to get over the hump of a project not meeting expectations is for P.M.s to position themselves and their teams to benefit from failure where possible. That doesn’t mean recasting a step back as a win or moving the goalposts, but considering what the project delivered in terms of useful experience. Having a narrow vision of what constitutes success can preclude learning from history.

Sometimes what is thought of as failure is really an opportunity to try a new process or way of doing things. If it doesn’t work, then P.M.s can stop the project before more costs are incurred; if it does work, then the team has hit on a possible best practice to repeat on the way to meeting other goals.

Learn more about project management at Brandeis University

Getting a graduate education in the arts and sciences of project management can help professionals further build up their skill sets and knowledge bases, considerably valuable resources when confronting failure. While never the No. 1 desired outcome for projects, benefits can be derived from failure. Understanding how to extract these insights is a particular challenge to project management. Students interested in gaining more learning may want to consider Brandeis University’s online Master of Science in Project and Program Management.



Recommended reading:

Conflict Management: A 7-Step Response Process


Leadership And Decision Making


Seven qualities of leadership in project management


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