Failing to Succeed

Your project has finished.  It’s been a success, congratulations.  Now you conduct a lessons learned review”.

But how much will you really learn?

In a paper* by Dr Peter Madsen (of Brigham Young University) and Dr Vinit Desai (of The University of Colorado – Denver), the authors argue that success is lees likely to lead to earning than failure.  The more you believe your project is a success, the more likely you are to miss the lessons for next time.

Rather, I suggest that you consider every completed project to be, at best, a qualified success.  However, the problems with failure as a learning tool are identified by Madsen and Desai as:

  1. If it is a big failure, people tend to focus on looking for excuses, scapegoats and other opportunities to dodge the blame, rather than learning lessons.
  2. If it is a small failure, people tend to brush it to one side and focus on the success, making it hard to extract meaningful lessons.

So, having read their paper (which uses data from 4,663 orbital launch attempts by 36 organisations – of which 4,220 were successes), I propose the following structure for a project debrief.

Project Debrief

Section 1: Our Successes

Acknowledge the successes, give recognition where it is merited, and analyse the factors (institutional, cultural, behavioural, procedural) that unambiguously contributed to them.

Section 2: Our Failures

Acknowledge the failures and accept these as belonging to the project – in the widest sense. Conduct ano-fault: no-blame analysis of the factors (institutional, cultural, behavioural, procedural) that contributed to them.

Section 3: Our Lessons

Harness the power of social commitments to trigger behavioural changes and meaningful interventions to embed the lessons learned as real progress.  Ask each person to state what they will commit to:

  1. do differently on their next project
  2. do to influence systemic change within their organisational
    sphere of influence

Use these to create initiatives that link team members to meaningful action for change.

The “so what?” – A Project Management Culture

It is easy for outsiders like me to promote the creation of a project management culture in client organisations.  Change must start and be sustained from within.  Here is a practical way to create meaningful incremental (and sometimes revolutionary) change.


* The paper is Failing to learn? The effects of failure and success on organizational learning in the global orbital launch vehicle industry Peter M. Madsen (Brigham Young university) and Vinit Desai (University of Colorado, Denver)


2 thoughts on “Failing to Succeed

    1. Mike Clayton Post author

      Craig – that’s interesting.
      I follow debates about the effectiveness of agile processes with interest but, never having worked on a software development project, am not well-enough informed to assess the arguments made. The principles appeal to me although I do worry about how to ensure the definition of the end product (and therefore of success) is clear enough from the outset.


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