Failure is inevitable. In fact, some of our most successful role models have made organized failure a part of their achievement plans. Thomas Edison, the patron Saint of Failure, famously said, after his 10,000 th failure at finding a filament material for the electric light bulb – “ I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work”.
I call effective use of failure the “Fail Forward” technique. Here are ten barriers to the effective use of failure:
1) Talk it up to your family, relatives and friends – This is a barrier, because it makes it hard for you to stop, adjust, or go in a new direction. Your sister-in-law will come up to you at a barbeque and ask how things are going, and you will have to smile and say, “just great’.
2) Fail slowly – the power in effective failure comes from learning from your failures, and trying again. Hanging on, staying the course, never giving up are all barriers to effective failure. I’ve learned to temper my tendency to persevere, and ask the question “is it time to pull the plug”?
3) Take it on the road – relocation involves a huge commitment of time, money, and mental bandwidth. Moving for an opportunity is very visible, and hard to undo. Be careful before you commit to a project, job, or opportunity out of town – it is much harder to exit once you have made that commitment. As Shirley McLaine famously said about her loser son-in-law in the movie “Terms of Endearment” - “He can’t even fail close to home!”.
4) Name it after yourself – I’ve made this mistake – naming it after yourself (or your mother, wife, or child) can be a good thing, in that you affirm your commitment to the project, and your love for the person. But it can be a real problem when it is time to bail. Who wants to close a company named after their mom?
5) Over Plan – Another personal problem. I’m a planner by nature, and I like everything about the planning process. I like to envision the future, I like to keep options open, I like to consider alternatives, and form the possibilities. This, of course, gets in the way of actually doing something! More is gained from engaging reality than from considering the alternatives in a planning way. Under-plan, and over-try.
6) Don’t Document what you did – If you don’t document what you did, and why, you can’t engage in the all-important review process afterward, where you compare your execution with your results, and adjust accordingly.
7) Don’t Track your Results – If you conceive, plan, and execute, then don’t track your results, how can you fail forward? How can you understand what worked, and what didn’t? How can you adjust, and retry? Make sure that your trails and failures are set up so that you collect the key data.
8) Give Up – Effective failure is all about “try, try again”. If you get discouraged, or distracted, or go on to the next thing, you can’t learn from your mistakes. A single trial in a sequence of projects or efforts is much less effective than a set of focused trials that build on successive successes and failures.
9) Spend lots of money early – the tendency in many project efforts is to “front load” – get a good start, prepare against inevitable delays, and make good early progress. The problem with front loading a project is that you may not know where the problems will appear. In many cases, it is better to “keep your powder dry”, and save resources for the problems.
10) Keep doing the same thing – you have only failed forward effectively when you adjust your actions, your approach, or your goals based on what you have learned.
BTW - Here are some Useful books and tools for the project manager:
Link to PM Items.