According to Bill Gates: “it’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”, and I think this is something that can apply to most areas of life. Throughout the years, everyone from Roosevelt to J.K. Rowling has had their say on the matter; the common message being that failure is vital to learning and, eventually, getting it right.
Yet for many organisations, and project managers, the idea of failure may not elicit a warm fluffy feeling. Failure can be costly, disruptive, and can even put individuals’ livelihoods at risk – it is no wonder that many organisations can feel a little nervous of the other ‘F’ word.
In today’s digital economy, more than ever, businesses will need to face their fears of failure if they are to succeed. Today, all industries are under increasing pressure to transform just to keep up with the rate of change in society. In this environment, inaction itself can create the conditions of failure. As American basketball player and coach John Wooden said: “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be”.
The spirit of innovation dictates that it will be a leap into the unknown, which inherently increases the risk that some things will go wrong. By their very nature, not every experiment works; but it is impossible to truly innovate and lead if you do not try something new.
Projects can fail for a variety of reasons. Some may be due to a lack of due diligence in the early stages, but for many it may be for unpredictable reasons completely outside of their control. The secret is not to be scared into inaction, but to have the ability to limit the damage – this is why the concept of ‘failing fast’ is gaining so much traction in businesses today.
Knowing when it is time to pull the plug on a project – which can be a scary decision when there have already been a number of man-hours and resources devoted to it – can sometimes be the most cost-effective approach. It can also allow you to go on to bigger and better things. As Gates asserts, the important thing is to learn from the failure and apply it in the future.
This is why it is so important to heed early warning signs of poor project health. This can enable businesses to change the course of a project to a more desirable outcome, or in a worst case scenario allow them to scrap it and avoid pouring more money down the drain. Not only this, but in order to learn you need to have data and a clear picture of what went wrong and why, so that history does not repeat itself further down the line.
Having real-time visibility into the whole portfolio of projects is critical to filtering out potential failures fast, reducing the negative impact on the business. Monitoring project success in the context of the full portfolio of interdependencies allows organisations to make agile decisions and save money. Additionally, by tracking and recording each step, organisations can analyse the data and apply the learnings for future projects to ensure success the next time.
By having this confidence to recognise potential roadblocks and make adjustments on the fly, businesses can test new ideas with confidence. So go forth! Try! Fail! And try again! As Thomas Edison once said: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”