How To Benefit From Failure

BusinessWeek Online has an interesting article about failure. It cites a couple of high profile successes (like Bill Gates and Abraham Lincoln) that had failed businesses early in their careers. It then goes on to talk about making business failures more productive through analysis and review.

The same holds true in projects. A huge number of projects “fail” in that they don’t meet original expectations, timelines or budgets. Sometimes they even fail by not producing the expected deliverable. Good project management can help minimize these kind of failures. But even the best team or is not going to bat 1000.

A good, objective review can make turn failures into springboards to better performance. Take the time to get distance on a project and to bring in other eyes to look at what went wrong. Some project management software (like Vertabase Pro) have the ability to warehouse projects with all their data so they can be reviewed and learned from -like watching the video replay of a baseball game.

Failed projects also take a psychological toll on team members or project managers. They sometimes think that it was their fault that things didn’t go according to plan, that there was more they could’ve done. While there is always room for improvement, a negative, guilt-ridden mindset will sap energy out of teams and managers, lowering future performance (and morale).

Psychologically, a more positive way of dealing with failed projects is to define success in terms of individual performance, and not in terms of project deliverables or the project plan. Was I (or person x) moving the project forward or dragging it down? Even the most experienced people can have their deliverables blow-up through no fault of their own.

The most valuable people to have on a team are people who can roll with the punches and keep coming back to the plate. People or project managers who are easily dejected or who only perform when things are going their way are dangerous to the long-term stability of a department or team.

Use failure as an opportunity to coach team members on mental strength and endurance. Use failures to foster a productive atmosphere, to show people the bigger picture of what they do. And if there are people who can’t be coached, use failure as a chance to cut them from team. Sometimes people can learn more from a real sense of failure, then from success. It worked well for the people mentioned in the Business Week article -Bill Gates seemed to turn out ok.

One Response to “How To Benefit From Failure”

  1. Brian Levy


    I always see a project’s positive atmosphere as something fostered by the project lead. If the tone of the project during stressful times are negative, that’s the critical moment of damage. A project lead needs to consider how his stress is showing to the team, and I have always believed he should shield his workers from it if possible. I have seen some pretty strong people cave in when the going got tough, some real professionals but like everything else, the atmosphere eventually changes in some way and people recover.

    When it comes to motivating people, it seems to me there are those people that are self-motivated. They are workers because it is in their drive and they do not usually care about doing anything but a professional job. A lazy or poor performer is almost impossible to motivate any which way. But even the good workers can get down and out during difficult projects and I think that is when it is so important to be encouraging. After all, most people just want to be heard, and appreciated, and feel like they make a difference. I think that is the essence of management.