Never, ever fear failure. Seven powerful lessons you can learn when your IT project fails

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David Cotgreave
If you like David's blogs - he is now a published author - Straight Talk on Project Management (VOLUME III)- Free eBook. Why not download your copy today. David Cotgreave MBA, BSc (hons), PRINCE II, is Professional Services Director at Stoneseed, with over 20 years’ experience in IT Consulting. David has worked with organisations such as BT Engage IT and KPMG, before founding Stoneseed in 2009 and has gained considerable business experience whilst working with a wide range of organisations across the UK and Europe carrying out a range of strategy, review and implementation projects. David is currently responsible for leading the Programme and Project Management services offered by Stoneseed. Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) from Stoneseed offers clients access to Project Management staff, resources and tools at a flexible and predictable cost via a fully Structured Managed Service.

child riding tricycleI bet you can ride a bicycle now, am I right?

How many times did you fall off whilst learning? How many plasters got applied to scuffed knees, how many times did you nearly go over the handlebars because you applied the front brake too harshly? How many tears? How many tantrums?

None of these were considered failures. As a child, you instinctively learned lessons each time, made adjustments and got better. You didn’t study data. You didn’t read a blog or a paperback book about learning from failure – you just did it.


I suppose because you had a clear goal and you had a clear picture in mind to illustrate it to yourself. You could imagine the sense of achievement when your Dad removed the stabilisers and wind in your hair as you raced down the street. You had passion for your objective.

As Project Managers I think that we can learn a lot from our younger more instinctive selves. Plus, we have the data to back up our gut feelings!!!

We’re all encouraged to learn from and try to replicate best practice, but can more be learned from worst practice?

It can. Both yours and that of others.

Never, ever fear failure.

Here are Seven Powerful Lessons You Can Learn When Your IT Project Fails:

‘Failure’ should teach you…

1 – To take responsibility. Don’t shift the blame to someone else if it’s “your bad”. Even if it’s not, it can be really empowering to explore if you played any role in the failure. Above all, it signposts what you can do differently next time. Investigating your role reminds you that your decisions and the actions you take can have a huge influence your organisation’s business mission. You are no small cog, my friend!

2 – To ask great questions. One Project Manager friend meditates on this question after each project – “How will I be different next time and in the future?” The data you get from a failed IT Project is specific, targeted and relevant. It is the most powerful feedback you will ever get. Asking great questions can unlock creative solutions for the future. Sometimes a pair of impartial eyes can ask great questions that hadn’t occurred to you – do you have an IT Project Management partner or someone in the industry that you can trust. Get their view!

3 – To strengthen your weakest links. When all is going well it is harder to assess whether all your team members are pulling their weight or your strategies and methodologies are really working for you. Often, such powerful insight is only gathered when something goes wrong. Advancements in safety within the aviation industry, for instance, have come from forensic, detailed analysis of the data from black boxes. Having a metaphorical black box on each of your IT projects may be a powerful way of avoiding repeating the same fails in the future. IT Project Management gap analysis can be really useful for identifying and bolstering weak spots that may be invisible to you.

4 – To align yourself with your business case. Really assess those end goals. Remember how focused ‘young you’ was on that bike? Get like that again with the end goals of your projects. Maximise success measured against added business value by aligning your projects goals with those of your company or organisation. Are you as passionate about this new software deployment as you were about losing those stabilisers?

5 – To be realistic with your objectives. I worked with a team recently to assess why their latest project had failed – it was delivered late and unusually for them a fraction over-budget. They were a great team of IT Project professionals, with vast experience, no slackers and a track record of success that added business value – so what had gone wrong? To be honest, an IT team of Marvel comic super heroes would not have met the objectives set – they were unachievable. They weren’t set by the team but by a ‘committee’ of department heads based on their paradigms. Remember, if what they’re asking from you is impossible you can say ‘no’.

6 – To build a learning culture. One project leader has this framed on her desk – “The faster we fail, the faster we’ll succeed” – you’ve probably seen similar. The point is that the quicker you learn from mistakes, setbacks and failures the quicker you can get back on track. When your culture is geared towards assessing and learning from “what happened” rather than, for example, “who did what” you nurture instincts that improve projects during their life cycle – as opposed to either retrospectively learning lessons that you can apply to future ones or even worse never learning at all.

7 – To retain a sense of humour. Don’t forget rubber, Vaseline, microwave ovens, cornflakes, saccharin and Viagra were all invented because someone failed whilst creating something else. Viagra was originally meant to treat angina but the unpredicted side effects caught the imagination more – now scientists at the University of Manchester have discovered that those little blue pills may have a new side effect – they might reduce the risk of heart attacks and failure. Who knew?! Keep trying and you get there in the end! Those sticky Post-It notes stuck to the side of your monitor are only there because someone invented a glue that wasn’t sticky enough – you are in good company.

So when your project goes off piste, smile, (ok – maybe not in front of the finance director who’s hopping mad at the budget you blew) ‘dust yourself off’, and learn every lesson that you can… then get back on your bike and pedal your way to success.

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