There is often wisdom to be gained from failure if organisations are willing to explore and understand where a project went wrong without zeroing in on where to lay blame. Rebounding from a failed project can be done in the right environment for future success if a culture of learning is actively fostered.

There’s widespread acceptance that there is significant corporate wisdom in learning from failure, yet it remains a fact that few organisations across the globe do it well.

While the belief has substantial support, and it’s clear that learning from failure is undoubtedly a common hallmark of innovative and disruptive companies, most organisations continue to do a poor job of genuinely learning from failures, whether these are big or small.

Indeed, it’s the case that even many companies that invest significant amounts of money and effort into trying to learn from failure can struggle to translate talk into action.

Research in the area bears this out. For instance, only 52 per cent of completed projects meet their proposed functionality, while successful projects make up “just over a third or 34 per cent”, according to a landmark Standish CHAOS Chronicles report based on over 13,000 projects from the early 2000s.

Alarmingly, since then, the situation has not seen much improvement. When it comes to the IT sector failure rate has even gone up, with a recent Project and Portfolio Management Survey from Plainview, finding that 55 per cent of firms polled have experienced a project fail.

So, while there’s often genuine corporate desire to learn from failure, it’s clear that a lack of understanding exists about what needs to happen to truly recover from setbacks.

Identifying and Examining Troubled Projects

The first key step, often overlooked by organisations in rebounding from failure, is to identify projects that are performing sub-optimally as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Thing is, that can be a lot harder than it sounds, especially as getting a clear idea of what a troubled project looks like can be difficult from both a technical and cultural standpoint. At a fundamental level, what needs to be drilled into are the project’s variance trends of cost, time and scope to see if they have gone beyond acceptable levels. Intervention is then essential as early as possible to stop further downward trajectory.

Project leaders also need to be on the lookout for warning signs on the cultural front. These include a lack of interest and ongoing poor communications between team members and leaders. Other signals include people showing up late or unprepared for meetings, not paying attention on the job or a lack of buy-in when it comes to contributing feedback on tasks.

Rapid Assessment and Analysis

When it’s apparent that a project is going to, or has already, failed the next step needs to be a rapid response that encourages recovery within the team and organisation.

A big move in the right direction here is avoiding the blame game that can so often cripple the build of a thoughtful, effective and healing response. As noted in previous bulletins systemic project failure is intrinsically linked to a lack of independent assurance, which helps drive clarity and give management the insights that are needed to avoid failure.

But that can be easier said than done. A strategy here, according to the Harvard Business School, is to foster a “sophisticated understanding” of the causes of failure, which can assist in avoiding simple, and erroneous, attributions of blame to particular individuals or teams that are likely to have been partly, but not wholly, responsible. This approach can help set up a considered response to failure.

Creating a Learning Culture and Encouraging Fair lay

At this point, leaders within organisations become very important. It’s up to them to create a culture that works against playing the blame game and makes people feel comfortable and duty-bound to openly learn from failures.  This is a tough mental task for leaders, but one that they have to be aware of and be committed to undertaking if circumstances call for it.

To this end, a step forward can be to conduct a thorough debrief — stand back from the situation and together with the team ask what worked, what didn’t work, and could have been done differently. It’s also extra important for leaders to be open about what they could/should have done differently. This empowers the team to be honest and open also.

Continuing to encouraging experimentation post failure is another critical factor. Firms with a nuanced and intelligent approach to failure are those that recognise it as a necessary by-product of experimentation. While the project failed, these types of organisations understand that such failure is inevitable if the firm is to be at the cutting edge of the market, where there’s the most upside but also substantial downside risk.

In today’s rapidly evolving business world, innovation, disruption and boundary-pushing are more important than ever. In this context, firms need a new culture around failure – one that effectively recognises it, but also focuses on detecting, correcting and learning from it to ensure fast recovery as quickly as possible.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and change management capability.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300. 

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...