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Updated by Wrike Team on Dec 28, 2016
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Lessons on Failure from PM Experts

Even if you’re a seasoned professional with extensive experience, you’re never immune to the smaller or bigger dangers of project failure. But there is an important question that seems to be rarely discussed: How do we learn from it? Malcolm Forbes wisely noted that, “Failure is success if we learn from it.”

Source: http://www.wrike.com/blog/03/05/2013/What-Can-We-Learn-Project-Failure-5-Lessons-Project-Management-Experts

1

Bob Tarne: Understand your stakeholders

Bob Tarne: Understand your stakeholders

Bob Tarne, the voice behind the “Zen, Project Management and Life” blog and currently executive project manager at IBM, shared a valuable lesson on avoiding failure caused by misunderstandings with project stakeholders:

“I thought of an example where I didn't take the impact of change on my stakeholders and ran into a roadblock. My project had executive support, so I was moving forward with the implementation. However, one stakeholder group wasn't on board. At first, I didn't take the time to understand their concerns... I tried to push the work through, but they kept resisting. I finally took the time to understand their particular concerns and was able to work out a way to meet their specific needs. So the lesson was that, even when you have executive support, you still need to take the time to understand all of your stakeholders.”

2

Terri Griffith: Ensure constant communication

Terri Griffith: Ensure constant communication

The lesson from Terri Griffith, Professor of Management and the author of “The Plugged-in Manager,” covered the communicative risks that may lead to project failure:

“My key lesson is – ensure constant communication to avoid poor situational awareness. People want to do a good job and sync with other aspects of their project, but if they don't have situational awareness, then those good intentions are just intentions. At extremes, the lack of communication then results in misinterpretations of why things aren't syncing – Psych 101 teaches that if something is going wrong, it's the other person's fault; if it's going well, it's to my credit. With poor communication, root causes can be misunderstood, adding to a downward spiral.”

3

Elizabeth Harrin: Share

Elizabeth Harrin: Share

Elizabeth Harrin, who regularly shares her PM wisdom in A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, highlights how important your experience might be for fellow project managers:

“My lesson would be: share. There is no point in not sharing. It is better for everyone if you are honest about the failure and what happened, and tell as many people as you can. Often we don't institutionalize lessons about project failure, and the same mistakes are made time and time again.”

4

Peter Taylor: There should be no project failure

Peter Taylor: There should be no project failure

As for Peter Taylor, best known for his bestseller “The Lazy Project Manager,” the advice dives deeper into organizational reasons of project failure and gives a good deal of motivation:

“I think the one, big lesson we should all learn from project failure is that there should be no such thing as project failure! Projects should deliver. Now they may not deliver what was intended originally, but they should follow one of three clear paths:

  • Deliver the expected business benefits,
  • Be adjusted to deliver some business benefits, or
  • Be stopped because they are not expected to deliver the business benefits originally intended, at any level of success, or they are focused on business benefits that are no longer relevant.

So project failure has nothing to do with individual projects not delivering, but more an indictment of the organization that allows such projects to ‘just keep going until the bitter end’ for some business reason.”

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Wrike: Discussion -> Root causes -> Actions -> Codification

Wrike: Discussion -> Root causes -> Actions -> Codification

When I asked the question myself – there is something to learn in any failure. There are actions to take to prevent it from happening again, and as Terri and Elizabeth brought up, there’s a lot to communicate. Here’s how I’d put it into a simple, four-step process:

  • Have an open and constructive discussion within the team about the failure. That serves both to communicate the lessons and leverage their collective intelligence.
  • Analyze root causes together.
  • Work out an immediate action plan to minimize the impact of the project failure.
  • Codify the lessons learned into processes and practices: “The next time this happens, we do that.” This could be viewed as a long-term form of communication.

We could call it DRAC for fun. :-) Discuss – Root causes – Actions – Codify. If you’re in the mood for creating acronyms, feel free to come up with your own.