Embracing failure

23rd July 2021

Embracing failure


I remember being involved in a fairly major recruitment drive and screening the CVs of dozens of change practitioners.  Most of these CVs included interesting examples of relevant projects that went really well, that delivered on time, on budget and achieved the relevant benefits.  This is very useful information to put on a CV, but it struck me that it seemed quite different to the more frank and open discussions I’d have with peers about how projects really operate.  Looking at the pile of CVs in front of me, you’d be forgiven for thinking that project work was a super-predictable utopia where everything runs smoothly and there’s virtually no conflict.  This utopian world sounds incredibly desirable, but sounds markedly different to how most projects actually work.  In reality, some projects do go over their deadlines and exceed their budgets.  Data from PMI’s 2021 ‘pulse of the industry’ survey indicates that around 45% of projects aren’t completed on time, with 38% exceeding their original budget and 35% being classed as failures and having their budget withdrawn.  Some would say even these figures are under-estimates.

If nearly half of projects experience at least one form of major complication, why do CVs and LinkedIn profiles tell a different story?  Perhaps this uncovers an important and often unstated expectation about the project world: perceived ‘failure’ is not seen as acceptable or desirable. The definition of ‘failure’ is often incredibly unhelpful, meaning that some of the best practitioners might get overlooked.  This leads to people (quite understandably) putting a positive ‘spin’ on their experience, and omitting some experience completely.

Let’s take an example and imagine three change practitioners are applying for a particular role:

  • Practitioner A: Worked on a major project that was ‘canned’ prior to implementation.  Changes in the business environment meant it was no longer needed.
  • Practitioner B: Delivered a complex project on time and on budget
  • Practitioner C: Worked on a major project that went over time, over budget and had problems throughout implementation

On the face of it, Practitioner B could probably tell a much more compelling sounding story about the project that they worked on and might be seen as the favourite candidate.  Yet in reality all of these practitioners have valuable experience.  Ensuring that projects that are no longer viable are cancelled before more money is wasted is really important. Too many projects ‘become too big to fail’, and Practitioner A has experience of navigating this tricky area.  Practitioner C may well have been burned by a bad project, but this may have been due to bad decision making elsewhere that they were desperately trying to influence.  They may have in-depth experience of navigating complex political landscapes that they wouldn’t have got on simpler and smoother-running project.  The old proverb reminds us that  ‘a smooth sea never made a good sailor’, perhaps the same is true of change initiatives too. Having people on board who have experienced adversity will help if similar troubles emerge in the future.


Striving To Be More Transparent with Failure

Sadly, in some organisations, the word ‘failure’ is seen as politically inconvenient and this leads to questionable projects continuing long after they should have been cancelled.  A change will be implemented with a huge fanfare, then senior management’s attention will be drawn elsewhere before the reality sinks in.  Benefits management will be conveniently forgotten about, and any front-line worker who complains about the new half-baked IT systems and processes will just be branded as a troublemaker. Glossy brochures and PowerPoint decks proclaim the initiative as a ‘success’ even though anyone impacted by the change would have quite a different view.

In reality a failure is a failure, however it is spun, and organisations that are doing any kind of project are subject to a risk of that initiative failing. Implementing change is a risky endeavour, and organisations initiating change ought to be realistic about this.  Good change management, business analysis and project or product management approaches can help to mitigate this risk. Yet it can never be eliminated completely… and this means that (statistically speaking) an experienced change practitioner ought to have experience of failures as well as successes.

So perhaps we ought to admit this and speak more openly about what hasn’t worked so that as a community we can learn from each other.

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert