Failure is never easy. No one likes to fail and some are utterly terrified of it. However, as a human being, it’s impossible to avoid it completely unless you lock yourself in a room and avoid all types of interaction with the outside world. We all naturally do our best to avoid failure, but it can happen in any area of our lives - from a small social hiccup to an epic professional implosion.
In author and journalist Elizabeth Day’s podcast “How to fail” (well worth a listen), she interviews some of the most accomplished people around today about when they have failed, what they learned and why their prior failure has actually been vital to their current success. As the topic of failure becomes less and less taboo, Day’s podcast becomes more and more successful.
But how about working life? As a project manager, it is my job to ensure the principle of 7 p’s (Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance) has been carried out. Taking briefs, creating project plans, liaising with the client, setting expectations, giving updates, answering questions and following up… The list is long. It doesn’t really matter how good the creatives (in our case) are, without effective comms, the client won’t be able to make informed decisions that will ultimately determine the quality of the deliverables.
Unfortunately, the odd person will intentionally misinterpret what you’re saying altogether. No matter how many times you reconfirm or reiterate something, most PM’s have experienced a situation whereby people claim they simply ‘didn’t get the memo’. But these tricky situations (literally) are few and far between. Most people would only miss information when they are so overstretched that their inbox is in freefall.
Different kinds of failure
But back to the failure bit. What are the typical failure pitfalls for a PM? To explore this further, we recently took part in a Brighton Project Collective meetup where we discussed the topic with other PM’s from our industry.
Here’s the hitlist: –
At first, it seemed like everyone struggled to think of an example where they had failed miserably – but most had experienced a project that although not a complete disaster, had aspects of failure that could have been avoided.
Failure is not really an option when you work as a project manager. Your job is to plan, push, and overcome any obstacle, both internal and external. If you fail, you are bad at your job. Or are you?
Although the most obvious failure is a missed deadline, a broken budget, or a really angry client, there are other kinds of failures. The kind that’s not necessarily addressed, because it’s not urgent, but it works like attrition and if the same mistakes keep happening, they can result in much bigger problems for the company. Problems which include fundamental trust issues between departments, which lead to more miscommunication and so the vicious cycle is complete.
How to fail – the do’s and don’t’s
So how can one, if not completely prevent failure, at least ensure that we learn from past experiences? The first step, create a company culture where it is the norm to talk about failure without judgement. If the management admits when they’ve made a mistake, it makes it easier for everyone else. Then when you run into difficulties, the team is more likely to be less defensive and more open to constructive conversations, which in the long run will save both relationships and money.
The worst thing you can do is to ignore the mistakes and pretend it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, (most) humans have a better memory than a goldfish, and so this path only leads to distrust.
When a particularly draining project is done and dusted, your first instinct might be to just archive all the files, throw away the key, and never talk about it again. What’s the point in reliving it?
Retrospectives can be hard but they are necessary. After the dust has settled and everyone has had the chance to get some perspective, regroup and talk through the project. In hindsight, what could have been done differently?
The easiest way? Avoid the temptation of saying yes to everything if you don’t have to. Make it a rule that before agreeing to a project, be sure to involve the team that will be carrying out the work and get them to reality check the scope. Just saying yes and thinking “it will be fine, we’ll find a way” i.e ‘Fake it til you make it’ can sometimes be a great opportunity, however, hitting a busy team with unknown challenges is more likely to cause friction and stress.
Constantly overpromising the clients, without the right prerequisites for success, risks public failure and poor reputations from bad client reviews. You might also cause your team to feel like they’ve been set up for inevitable failure and they will lose trust and motivation for future projects.
On the other hand, if people are encouraged to talk about failure, you can build your teams resilience, appetite for new challenges, and a general feeling of belonging. No matter what, you win and fail together.
Top tip – Get talking
Sigh, that old chestnut. Who’s got the time? You should! Get into the habit of regular catch-ups where your team can flag small issues early on so that they won’t become big. By doing this throughout the project process, not just at the end when everyone is already angry, is key.
It might seem time consuming, but it is a false economy to think that if you leave it, it will sort itself out. 99% guarantee, it won’t and it might turn out to be more costly in the end.
So in conclusion. Failure comes in different shapes and sometimes it can sneak up on you. Even though talking about it can be difficult, your team all benefits from an open discussion in order to find ways around it together, and hopefully, avoid running into the same issues in the future.
Failure isn’t nice, but it’s necessary.