Embracing Failure: The Secret Sauce in Project ManagementColleen Carmean | Assistant Chancellor of Academic Affairs, University of Washington Tacoma
By now, you’ve hopefully learned from this Special Feature’s tips, advice, and rules of thumb regarding the murky process of project management (PM). Whether using the PMI toolkit or an institution’s time-tested, assessment-driven checklist, we’re all more successful when we embrace an orderly set of steps that keep us from veering off the path to successful project completion.
So why do we still fail? Why do most of us have a story of that one spectacular #FAIL? More specifically, why are there no special issues, workshops, or tools to review that teach us to absorb failure and how to take the next steps? And why is failure—understanding it, embracing it, and learning from it as structured process—not a part of the expectations we each carry?
In this article, we look at a framework to embrace and E.R.A.S.E. failure as a part of the project management process.
A part of PM should surely end with a closing analysis of all parts of the project. Not simply did we deliver, but did we completely hit our mark? Were there things we could have (should have) done differently and better? Did we anticipate consequences that ensued and how successful were we in achieving the project goal?
If there were unintended consequences, or we didn’t achieve the goal, how do we explicitly learn from our mistakes, get back on track, and then regain trust and support of stakeholders? These kinds of questions, ruthlessly asked of ourselves, whether we delivered on a project or stepped away, should be core to project management. When the answers are yes, we could have (should have) done better, how do go about learning from failure so that projects go more smoothly in the future?
E.R.A.S.E. the Failure in Five Steps: Embrace, Regroup, Amends, Salvage, Evaluate
Just as the PMI Toolkit has a form to guide us through each key checkpoint in a project, there should be a form for the points of failure. We’re taught in PMI that no matter the size of the project, each evaluation step should be completed, and the smaller the project, the quicker the step. This is true of failure. Taking time to acknowledge, reflect, and repair—even when the project was delivered—will better equip us for the next project and remind us to close out the loose ends of the current one. Let’s do it in five memorable steps: E.R.A.S.E.
Some words that are often not clearly said must be admitted aloud so that the team can move on. This is crucial to learning from failure and asserting transparency and trust. Embracing failures should be a key checkpoint in project management. Sometimes you have to simply admit; “We will not be able to deliver,” or “We did not achieve our goal in the promised timeline,” or that “The new system does not have all features we intended to implement by this time.”
So often these words are not clearly communicated to stakeholders and a frustration or resentment can brew of which the team may not be aware. Embracing failure, minor and large-scale, with self-examination and transparency is the first step in learning and in preserving stakeholder relations.
Along with embracing, to regroup is to own the reasons a project may have failed, totally or in parts. It’s to take responsibility, as a team, for the project not going as well as planned.
This happens when you collectively deconstruct the weak points and determine causes and consequences. Where did the project fall off the path and how could we avoid that in the future? Where were directives, agreements, or timelines not clear or achieved by consensus? Did anyone suspect that we would stumble there? Does anyone have suggestions on what we could do differently in the future?
Often, in our rush to completion—or abandonment—we forget to communicate openly with the stakeholders we so carefully consulted in the beginning of a project. At the end of a project, we want to implement, celebrate, and move on. But our stakeholders deserve more and many of them expect more. The ideal is explicit and honest outreach regarding where we are now, and how we got there. The language of amends:
- Thank you for your patience…
- We did not anticipate/did not consider/did not understand…
- We were not prepared for…
- We are sorry.
Learn to say you’re sorry, often and honestly. We all make mistakes, miss deadlines, mess up, don’t deliver or don’t please everyone. You need look no deeper for a case study than at Apple, where Tim Cook fired his iOS lead on Maps for being unable to say he was sorry. Don’t be that guy, or that team.
Failure should not be wasted, but instead salvaged: for lessons learned, resources, morale, experience, team-building. So much experience happens not in our small successes, but in large failures. So many entrepreneurs, inventors and creatives know and embrace the lessons of failure. Their quotations should pepper our halls:
- Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett)
- I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. (Thomas Edison)
- When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel. (Eloise Ristad)
- Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit. (Napoleon Hill)
- The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing. (Henry Ford)
- Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly. (Robert F. Kennedy)
No project is complete simply because the anticipated goal was met or product delivered. We grow through the experience, but not without evaluation.
If we’re reflective of our work (and honest about it), we often realize we could have done it better, faster, different. We should always ask ourselves “How do we know?” And we should ask our stakeholders, partners, managers, colleagues that as well. If things went wrong, ask, “How can we ensure that this doesn’t happen again?” If the team struggled, ask, “Where do we need better skills? How could we have performed better as a team?”
What did we learn?
Success is always the goal, and it feels great, but it’s when we fail that we deeply learn. And it’s in reflections of where we could have done better, even amidst delivering on the goal promised, that we succeed, succeed faster, succeed better the next time. Only when we can thoughtfully E.R.A.S.E. failure, do we grow—as professionals and as teams.