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Best of PMTimes: Performance Review – Don’t Hide From Project Failure, Respond To It

Published on August 14, 2019

When you start a project you want it to succeed. But, projects fail.


Unless we learn from past mistakes we are destined to repeat them. To learn from the past, take a hard, unbiased and candid look at performance to discover the causes and conditions of both success and failure, document them and use them to refine your process.

I wrote about performance reviews back in 2016. Recent experience has highlighted the reality that as much as performance reviews are acknowledged to be the best way to learn from collective experience they are not always performed. This article explores the relationship between project failure and why reviews are not held and how to make them effective when they are.

Projects Fail

The article Project Management Statistics: 45 Stats You Can’t Ignore has a recent compilation of statistics regarding project performance. The article reports that project success has been rising, according to PMI and other survey sources. But, cost and schedule overruns and benefits shortfalls are still significant. For example, a “A PWC study of over 10,640 projects found that a tiny, tiny portion of companies – 2.5% – completed 100% of their projects successfully. The rest either failed to meet some of their original targets or missed the original budget or deadlines. These failures extract a heavy cost – failed IT projects alone cost the United States $50-$150B in lost revenue and productivity. (Gallup).” [2 IBID]

Responding To Failure

How do you and your organization respond to failures, or do you react? Do you make use of failures to promote ever greater probabilities of success? Or, is there fear, blaming and punishment and sweeping failures under the rug?

Some of the most successful people have said the following about failure
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” Colin Powell

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” “Failure is success in progress” Albert Einstein

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas A. Edison

The common theme is the recognition that highly intelligent and successful people accept failure and do not let it get them down. They learn from failure.

Performance Reviews

Surveys point to causes of failure and to correlations between project success and process maturity, among other factors. The surveys are useful starting points for learning. Survey data is based on a looking back at project performance to identify general tendencies.

However, to succeed, go beyond generalities. In project management, the performance review is the primary forum for learning from past performance by reflecting on how successful a project has been and the specific causes and conditions that influence success and failure. Therefore, it is a best practice to make sure project performance reviews are held and that they are effective vehicles for learning and continuous improvement.


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The Goal

The goal of a performance review is to identify practices that will inform future behavior. There is a commitment to continuously improve the process. Improvement comes out of the exploration of the things that have led to success and those that have contributed to failure. The focus is on the process. Lessons learned are transformed into proposed process changes.

Who doesn’t want to improve performance? Yet, there is resistance to doing the work to achieve it.

Step Back To Objectively Observe

It is highly effective to step back and objectively observe what you are doing and have done. There are two kinds of stepping back. One is so subtle and natural that you can be observing what you are doing while you are doing it. The other requires that you stop, observe and reflect.

Ideally, you as an individual are doing the subtle kind as you go through life – mindfully aware of what you are doing and adjusting your behavior as you go. The other kind of stepping back – to stop, observe and reflect – is equally important. The performance review is just that – a stepping back. Reflecting on whether what you are doing is what you think you should be doing, enables you to find the best way to proceed.

Stepping back allows you to choose and respond rather than react. When you document your observations and reflections during project life, you set yourself and your team up for a successful project performance review. When you do reflect on the current state of your project, go beyond the typical focus on deliverables, schedule and budget to include a sense of the health of relationships and levels of stress. Add questions like, Are there unproductive arguments? Are stakeholders enthusiastic? Are people happy?

Why Reviews Are Not Held

Project reviews are widely supported as the best way to learn from past performance. Yet, they are not always held and sometimes, when they are, they can be useless and boring. Why are project reviews not held? There are a number of causes interacting with one another – fear and blame, a history of useless reviews, poor facilitation, and not recognizing the value of performance review and improvement.

In one organization, a product development project’s review was held after the project was deemed a failure. The event was videotaped to make sure lessons learned were captured. Many months later, a consultant was called in to help the organization develop effective project management and performance methodologies. He discovered that the video was “lost”. It had been deemed too contentious and embarrassing.

The organization wanted to investigate how to avoid failure of future reviews and the video would have been a great starting point for that investigation. As the team remembered the event, they found that fear of confronting failure, blaming, lack of facilitation which led to the review devolving into a shouting match among a few assertive participants, and a lack of concrete factual material captured during the project were the primary factors that led to the review fiasco.


Some projects will fail. When they do, you can make the best of the situation by learning from the experience. Avoid a reaction that views failure as something to hide.

Instead, candidly review the experience, identify the causes of failure (and success) and use the lessons learned to refine procedures and guidelines for use in future projects. Remember, if you don’t learn from failure, you are likely going to repeat it.

Change the culture from one characterized by fear, blame and punishment, to one that values an open-minded view of failure and uses effective reviews and retrospectives to continuously improve. Establish an effective review process – the subject of the next article in this series.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.