Do projects really fail or do they just disappoint?

I recently had a conversation with some project managers regarding project success and failure. In this conversation, multiple arguments were brought up and motivated me to write a series of articles on project management. This series will deal with the following topics:

  • Why do people feel the need to diminish the importance of failure?
  • How to determine whether a project succeeded or failed?
  • How to measure the progress of a project?
  • 10 signs that your project is in danger.
  • From “Mission Impossible” to “Mission Accomplished”
  • Learning from failure.

Now that I have blown my horn and done my selfish promotion, let’s focus on the motivation behind this first article. The question that shocked me in this conversation was:  Do projects really fail or do they just disappoint?

At first sight, this question seems harmless but it brought many questions to my attention:

  • What is the motivation to diminish the importance of a project failure?
  • Will threats to the project be noticed ahead of time?
  • When questioned by the CEO regarding the progress of the project, will this project manager tell the truth or find endless excuses to justify the lack of progress?
  • Is feeling better about ourselves more important than delivering the project?

The society has been conditioning us that failing is acceptable. We give consolation prizes to losers for their effort, participation prizes to attendees, awards to players who lost the most units in computer games. For my non Canadian folks, since 1999, in hockey, we give 1 point to the team who lost in overtime for managing to survive this far. What is the difference between losing the game with 5 seconds to go during regular time and losing within 5 seconds of overtime? Really, none. In both cases, the team lost the game. However, the team that lost in overtime feels much better because they managed to get 1 point which helps them maintain their ranking. How does this motivates players to excel? Standards should be raised, not lowered.

From a human resources perspective, I can see some reasons that may tempt us to diminish the importance of failure. A company invests a lot of resources in recruiting competent employees. Getting them up to speed, maintaining high motivation and productivity levels, teaching them how their business works. Because of these factors, when we are faced with issues, we decide to tone them down in order to protect the investment. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings in fear of losing our employees. Bottom line: we want them to stay engaged no matter what value they generate.

Failure leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It leads to questions, doubts about your ability and ultimately guilt. It’s a very unpleasant feeling and we don’t like to put anyone in this situation. What most people fail to see is that failure is an opportunity to learn. If you are honest with yourself and coworkers, and try to understand what lead to this situation trough deep questioning, you will see that it can be a rewarding learning process. Before you can reap the reward, you have to first admit that there is an issue.

In this case, diminishing the importance of failure by using softer terms lowers the value of the experience we can gain from this situation. It also sends the the following message to our peers:

  • It’s OK. You did your best.
  • You will have another chance tomorrow with another project.
  • It’s not your fault, we will do better next time.

By doing so, we make failure more acceptable to us and to our peers. This is a very slippery slope. Once you start accepting the presence of 1, 2, 3 disappointments in your project, you condition yourself to their presence and you are heading much faster than you think towards failure.

Telling the CEO of a company that his/her financial and credibility loss is a simple deception is like telling the parents of a child that failing the school year is a minor inconvenience.

You can build on small wins to climb a mountain, but you can also tumble downhill with small disappointments. It always starts with small steps.

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