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Learning from Failure and Defining Success

In the immortal words of the great George Bernard Shaw, 'Youth is wasted on the young.' While the young enjoy an innocence and idealism that leads to a 'can do' attitude, they lack the life experience that gives the more mature a required sense of focus and boundaries. During the most formative years of our lives, we are constantly monitored and protected as much as possible against the failures that would otherwise most certainly challenge us. Tragically, we read of childhood failures in the newspaper. How many times have we heard people say, 'I just looked away for a second!'

Ironically, the best life lessons we have come from what we learn from our survivable failures. Anyone who has ever had to sell knows the old adage that the sale does not begin until we hear our first 'No!' Without ever learning how to deal with problems, objections, or hearing the word 'no,' we get a false sense of success and will most certainly fail. In sales, measuring success and failure is both obvious and rather quick. Learning from failure during a project management career is also the best teacher, however, without significant experience and support tools, project managers all too often do not realize they failed until long after they have left the project.

Imagine how much more we would learn about a candidate for a project manager's position if we would ask, 'Tell me about your projects that have failed,' during the interview. Would any of us even consider hiring a candidate who would answer that they never had a project fail? Asking the candidate what they learned from their failed projects and how that changed them is much more important than all the successes they have ever enjoyed in the pursuit of managing their projects.

We can also learn from our victories. In baseball, it is quite clear who wins. When the game is over, the team who has the most runs on the scoreboard is the winner. That could not be any clearer. The same is true of basketball, soccer, or football. The team that has more points at the end of the game is the winner. There is absolutely no subjectivity needed. Chico Marx once said to his brother Grocho, 'I can tell you the score of the game before it even starts.' Grocho would get sucked in and asked, 'What?' Chico would reply, '0-0.'

In project management, that also hold true. At the project kickoff, everything is even. Like a baseball game, however, as soon as the project hits the field, things change from that point on. In a baseball game, a team can still win even if it is way behind at the end of its second inning. This is not true in a project. If a project is behind schedule at the 25% point, it can never be on time and on budget with the initially promised success criteria. When the project began, it was on level footing. 'If we look away for only a second,' things can get so out of hand that they soon become irrevocably behind schedule and budget. Unlike a sporting event, even if we put in a new 'batter' or a new 'pitcher' or a new 'quarterback' or make adjustments to the project, it is too late to effect the change required to make up the loss.

The problem with managing a project is that the success of a project is not as binary as winning a game of sport. That is because we rarely document and agree on the definition of our projects with enough detail to remove the subjectivity. We need to declare the rules of success for the project just like we do in sporting events. By going through defining success, the entire project team and all the stakeholders will know what a win is. Would anyone sit down and play a card game before understanding the rules? When will we learn to define the rules and success criteria at the beginning of our projects?

Success can be as clear as a well-planned, well-umpired baseball game or as foggy as Nike's logo, 'Just Do It' approach to life? acking a plan or intermediate measurements. While success can be achieved without clearly being defined at the beginning, everything is being left to chance. An F14 jet pilot that is ordered to land on an aircraft carrier in thick fog would never even try without knowing the location, speed, and direction in which the ship was moving. That is exactly the same way projects must be approached. Trying to hit a moving target without planning for its movement and starting location, most assuredly turns into that well-known enemy of any project  'scope creep.' On the other hand, moving along without planning for change is no different than the pilot who tries to land the jet where the aircraft carrier was when the order to land was first received. Think of the aircraft carrier as the project and the captain of the carrier as the customer. Without understanding and planning for the risks, and without keeping clear and unfiltered lines of communication open, the project will most assuredly end up in the drink. By 'piloting' projects with clearly defined definition, measurements, and open and honest communications with the customer, the project manager will pilot the project to a safe and successful landing and success.

Copyright © 2005, Joel Saren and Eli B. Perlman. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Eli B. Perlman ( ) has been in the information systems industry specializing in Health Sciences for close to 30 years. Today, Eli is responsible for the Global Health Sciences business at TIBCO Software. Eli has served in various capacities at SeeBeyond, marchFIRST, Oracle, CSC, Quest Diagnostics, and HP. Throughout the years, Eli's expertise and reputation have afforded him the opportunity to work with senior corporate leaders in many of the boardrooms of the Fortune 500 companies. Eli is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI® ) and the American Society for the Advancement of Project Management (ASAPM).

Joel Saren, Project Management Consultant, has been in information technology for over 20 years. Joel has served in IT management or senior project management roles for Digital Equipment Corporation, Harte-Hanks, as well as an independent consultant of project management. Joel served on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Chapter of PMI® for five years and the board of directors for ASAPM. He has been married for 30 years and has four children. He and his wife Linda live in Hampstead, NH. 

Joel Saren, Project Management Consultant, Eli B. Perlman, GM TIBCO Health Sciences

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