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The Importance of Failing Productively

I recently attended the APM (Association for Project Management) yearly conference in London. The overarching theme was Adapt, and called on the project management profession to adapt its thinking to address the increasing expectations of society – a society that has a growing intolerance to failure and expects all projects to succeed.

One of the most stimulating speakers of the conference was Tim Harford, who writes the Undercover Economist column for the Financial Times and is the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. He addressed the more-for-less culture that sprung from the financial crisis, and how people are still waiting for this trend to fade once the economy is back on its feet.

But in reality this will never happen.

According to Harford, after each financial crisis we continue to operate under more scrutiny and with fewer resources. The new benchmark of delivering better projects with less funding and in less time is here to stay. What that means for project managers is that we continuously need to look for new and better ways of optimizing how we work, and that we might have to justify project expenditure through well-documented business cases. But there’s a catch for businesses that want to excel in a competitive environment.

Don’t stop at marginal gains

One of the quickest and safest ways of optimizing project execution is to look for marginal gains – an approach where we improve tools, fine-tune workflows and increase team motivation and engagement. You basically map out all of a project’s moving parts and look for any marginal improvements you can make — it’s a low-risk and a no-nonsense approach. Tweak here, tweak there, job done!

But as Harford pointed out, you only get so far with marginal gains. The big quantum leaps and breakthroughs don’t come from optimization. They come from experimenting and taking risks – actions that can be difficult to build a case for within organizations where the perception is that projects aren’t allowed to fail.

When you fail, fail productively

But as project managers and change agents, we have to remind people that it’s OK to experiment and to fail – in fact it’s necessary at times. How else can we find that ingenious new solution to our client’s problem? The key is to fail productively, as Harford put it. We need to learn from our failures and accept that mistakes can be good as long as they genuinely help us advance and get closer to our end goal.

So, how can we as project managers start to fail productively? Well, the first step is to understand and then overcome the following risk-adverse roadblocks.

Roadblock 1: Wanting to fit in

Most people want to conform and therefore shy away from taking risks. Many of us have been encouraged to fit in to the social norm for our entire lives – especially during our school years. Only a few people are willing to put their reputation at risk by endorsing ideas and initiatives that might not work out. The bottom line here is that we fear both failure and not being enough.

Solution: Before you outline a solution or agree to a certain way forward, make sure you have identified all possible options – including the high-risk ones. The trick is to not automatically discard the high-risk options out of fear that they’ll fail or be rejected. Instead, look at them objectively and assess if the potential benefits could outweigh the risks. Also become aware of what the worst case scenario is and how you – and the organization – would deal with it. Often the worst case scenario is much more manageable than we initially imagine.

Roadblock 2: The more-for-less culture

Budgets are often tight and many organizations have an increased demand for perfection, smooth execution and certainty. The more-for-less-culture means that managers are expected to deliver projects to pre-agreed budgets and timeframes. And so, they choose the safe option which gives them quick wins and fast results.

Solution: Show the decision-makers and sponsors that less risk equates to fewer possible rewards, and that true innovation is associated with risk-taking. You can do this by creating a compelling business case which demonstrates the potential long-term benefits of taking a higher risk approach. Also build the extra buffer into your plan and budget that account for uncertainty and changes along the way.

Roadblock 3:

We often get angry at ourselves when we fail. And instead of using our failure productively and refining the course, we let our brains close down. We go into meltdown mode, and make even more mistakes and poorer decisions.

Solution: Remind yourself and others that there is no such thing as failure – only feedback about what works and what doesn’t. To prevent a meltdown, first identify all the ways in which this perceived failure benefited you or the team, such as: new knowledge, insight, experiences, process improvement, etc. Also look at what you can do to change the situation so that you get a better outcome next time. This is basically why post-project reviews and triages are so important.

What’s your risk IQ?

So now what’s left is assessing you own attitude to risk-taking, and determining how much experimenting and creativity you put into the inception of a project. Some questions to ask yourself: Are you the kind of manager who likes to be on the safe side? Someone who operates within the parameters given to you and who focuses on optimization and marginal gains? Or are you a leader who does what is right for the team and organization no matter what the rebuttals are? Do you understand that at certain moments, it’s time to experiment and to put your own reputation at risk for the greater good?

These are some questions to get you thinking. Tell us your thoughts and experiences on taking risks on your projects. How else can we fail productively and take meaningful risks at work?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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