Failure and success: Both outcomes have the opportunity to teach us how to continuously improve how to deliver better projects.

It’s often said that if we can learn from our mistakes, there’s an opportunity for growth. Visionaries in our culture, business, and political worlds know that often the path to success is littered with failures.

The Harvard Business Review identified that many leaders believe that all failures are bad even if it does provide lessons and that learning from failures is pretty straightforward. Its study showed that both beliefs are misguided: Some failures are inevitable and some are good. More importantly, however, successfully learning from failure is not always as simple as business leaders may have us believe.

It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure
– Bill Gates

So what are the types of failures that organisations face?

  1. Preventable ones with predictable operations that usually involve deviations from specifications.
  2. Unavoidable ones in complex systems which may arise from unique combinations of needs, people, and problems;
  3. Intelligent ones at the frontier, where ‘good’ failures occur quickly and on a small scale while providing the most valuable information.

Strong leadership can build a culture to leverage the learnings from these three categories of failure – a culture in which failures large and small are consistently reported and deeply analysed, and opportunities to experiment to improve an organisations response to failure is proactively permitted.

Or in the words of Henry Ford:

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Analysing Failure

No one likes to make mistakes, and revisiting and analysing failures in depth is both emotionally unpleasant and can impact an individual’s self-confidence. To be honest, most people will speed through or avoid failure analysis altogether.

If you apply that thinking to an organisation or project, then what we often see in organisations is decisiveness, efficiency, and action being rewarded over thoughtful reflection. For organisational failures to be adequately studied to derive the key learnings it requires this ability to reflect and other different techniques like inquiry, openness, patience, and a tolerance for ambiguity that enables an organisation to properly analyse failure.

It is for this reason that the right culture is so important. Blame cultures propagate a ‘norm’ where downplaying responsibility and placing undue blame on external or situational factors when a project fails, yet they will do the reverse when assessing the failures of others.

Successful analysis of failure requires interdisciplinary teams with diverse skills and perspectives. Complex failures in particular are the result of multiple events that occurred across different departments or disciplines, or at different levels in the organisation.

Understanding what happened and how to prevent it happening again requires detailed, team-based discussion and analysis. It’s not the job of a cursory post-implementation review, where most everyone goes through the motions and its aim is to limit the bad news as best as participants can.

What Blocks Learning From Failure or Success?

The essential blocks for learning are many and varied, not to mention heavily researched and analysed. The Institute for Management Development delves into the reality that emotions are sometimes an important inhibitor learning.

A significant block to learning from failure is that it makes us feel angry or sad – and leaves us less disposed to dwell upon it. Conversely, success will likely create positive sensations and a desire for recognition and self-congratulation. People love to accept responsibility when they succeed and try to replicate the successes to ensure they generate more of that great feeling. Leaders might, therefore, avoid reviewing project mistakes to avoid unpleasant feelings and prefer to reflect on the successes to sustain the pleasant ones.

Furthermore, examining failures or mistakes can serve as a reminder that leaders are fallible – thus exposing their fragility. In addition, unless the deeper learning is analysed and clear, failure narratives can make leaders overly cautious in their decision making and remind them to avoid pain in the future by “playing it safe”.

What Do Project Managers Say?

Studies by the Project Management Institute show that Project Managers believe that PIRs and the capture of learnings should always be undertaken on projects. In fact, the study showed that 100% said they could learn from past project successes and failures.

However only 60% said lessons learned are gathered and used only sometimes.

The PMI highlighted the top five reasons for not undertaking suitable project assurance activities and developing lessons learned:

Table 1: Top reasons for not undertaking project assurance to capture lessons learned in projects

Reason % of surveyed respondents
Lack of time 84%
Lack of resources 69%
Lack of clear guidelines 60%
Lack of incentive 44%
Lack of management support 40%

Lack of employee time and lack of resources reflects a culture where learning is not valued and rushing to complete the next project is more important than gaining valuable knowledge from experience (good and bad) to better execute projects. Lack of clear guidelines is related to lack of management support for managing the lessons learned process.

Lack of incentive to make the effort required to deeply examine lessons learnt also points to leadership and culture that does not value learning from past mistakes.

Lack of management support is clear that leadership does wish to reflect upon why something may have failed and supports the behaviours observed by the HBR and IMD.

Culture

We have explored the impact of a blame culture on project in our past bulletins, and it comes as no surprise that failure and fault are virtually inseparable. Making mistakes and attributing fault are embedded into us from childhood.

The HBR study identified high-achieving organisations that have successfully been able to implement a learning culture first have to instil a safe culture, i.e. one that allows for its teams and people to admit mistakes. To assist in this, a “spectrum of reasons for failure’’ was created to allow organisations to not only identify the type of failure they were encountering but to also categorise failure on a scale as either blameworthy or praiseworthy with the latter being the best type of failure. See diagram 1 below (click to view larger version).

When leaders reviewed these reasons, they believed that only 20% of failures should have any blame attached to them, but the reality was in fact that 70-90% – by their own admission – resulted in blaming individuals or teams for failures.

The worrying finding from this is that a number of failures go unreported and the potential for real value-add learnings are lost to the organisation. The likelihood of the same mistakes being repeated then becomes ever-present. Having a structured and reasoned approach to analysing failure is one way of taking the emotional heat out of the review.

Defusing the Blame Culture to Learn from Failure

Changing an organisational culture is difficult, especially moving from a blame culture toward one that allows for a more forgiving approach to failure that focuses on learning. Leaders commonly – and understandably – worry that taking a more understanding stance on failure may create an ‘anything goes’ environment. The fear of getting to the bottom of failure is highlighted in the results of the PMI’s study and points to the lack of leadership support (indirectly or directly) means that lessons learned are simply not captured.

Defusing the blame game can be done. Business leaders should recognise that failure is inevitable in today’s complex work environments and especially in projects. Where change is constant and ever-increasing in pace, organisations can no longer afford not to learn from failure if they want to have enduring success.

Talk to us about how to foster the right approach to managing from project failures and the tools that can facilitate a supportive culture for learning. Contact us here or call 02 9098 6300.

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