Project Failure: Benefits and a Retrospective

What better way to premier content on this site than with a frank discussion on project failures. Every project manager’s nightmare. Whether you’re managing a multi-media solution within an agency, or executing a new application or site build, client-side. Demands are many. Risks often not entirely realized or planned for. Things happen. A project will never be perfect. Something will always give or nudge its way to the surface. I have lead a number of projects that did not end, or even begin well. The reasons may be familiar; ‘forced’ resource re-allocation just before kick off or post sprint-planning, major scope changes impacting usability of the product, missing requirements, unforeseen technical blockers… The list can continue, but I’m sure I’ve already sent heart palpitations and dropped stomachs for many of my 7 readers. I apologize.

“…So many issues, that we could forget about mom for a while.”

Relief comes in the form of looking back on the failure, once the thrill ride is over. Many, however, look to these projects and file them under ‘Holy-jumping blue-aprons, what the hell were we thinking?  I’m so grateful we’re through this. There are so many issues, that we could forget about mom for a while’.

What we often do is view these ‘bad projects’ as merely ‘poorly managed’. But were they? Only if project managers and business leaders do not learn from these gaps. There is actually little we can learn from successful projects – in comparison with failed endeavors. Successful launches often occur by learning from the faults of previous crashes (i.e. SpaceX – literally). New processes are established. Better safeguards and tools. Skills acquired and resources are then adjusted accordingly.

These elements are also known to describe another phenomenon. Growth.

Teams get stronger. They get better at managing dire situations, or when charting into unknown territory. They grow together, and communication improves. What project manager would not love to leave the office each day knowing full well that tasks are properly communicated, executed, and reviewed across the team? How can the mistakes of the past be viewed as insight for a project’s future? This can only come from the experience of failure.

Project managers confidently make decisions that impact a project’s schedule, or propose technical or process-based solutions. Without the context of past errors and experience, these decisions will impact the cohesion of your team. Even in a collaborative setting.

Who can trust someone without the experience of being wrong? It may sound counter-intuitive, but alternatively, simply sweeping failure under the rug would be most disturbing.

“Failure needs to be seen as an intermittent point of opportunity.”

It’s not to say that failure be a constant (unlike change – but we’ll get to that another day) – that you anticipate project failure, prior to its start. Project management requires the expertise to optimize your resources and avoid waste. Failure needs to be seen as an intermittent point of opportunity.

So welcome to this space. I’m planning that things go well. That everyone gets something out of these insights and cases. To learn collectively and spur discussion.

I’ll let you know if there’s a problem. Alternatively, I can always adjust this to David the Parachute Maker. There. I innovated. Lesson learned.

Share with your team.

One thought on “Project Failure: Benefits and a Retrospective

  1. Great article, David. A team can learn a lot and grow from failure. It’s still hard and quite unpleasant, but it’s great if a team can embrace the learning opportunity.

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