Importance of Failure

Importance of Failure

Failure is defined as “an omission of occurrence or performance”.  It is also defined as the “lack of success”.  If we can establish metrics on success, does that mean we can also create metrics on failure?  It does stand to reason that this is not only possible but desirable.

Perhaps the real issue is that we don’t define success criteria well in the first place.  What is project success?  Is it finishing the project by a specific date?  If so, then that's a very limited definition and statistically very difficult to accomplish.  It's equivalent to hitting a homerun every single time at bat.  Minimally, it should be defined as a range.  Perhaps within 10% of a specific target date would be a better definition of schedule success.  But meeting a specified date can't be the only criteria for project success.  There has to be more.  What about creating a quality deliverable?  Achieving customer satisfaction? Meeting specific budgetary targets? Solving the defined business problem?

From this we can then agree that the definition of project success is:

  1. Multi-dimensional and balanced between several criteria
  2. Should be set as a range rather than a point
  3. Objectively measurable

If failure is defined as the lack of success then can success be defined as the lack of failure?

That logic does not hold true.  In some of the greatest events in history, failure in one aspect actually became the cornerstone of future success or through innovation something new was created.  The critical element in these situations is the ability to learn from those experiences and translate that knowledge into future situations effectively.

Failure as a motivator:  It can be the driver or motivation to find a solution and eventually achieve success.  How is this accomplished?  By discussing the situation and determining causal relationships.  This can be particularly challenging in environments when the after action review of the failure focuses more on finding out who is to blame rather than how the failure occurred in the first place.  It will require a cultural shift to change attitudes about failure.  Leadership must provide an environment where it is encouraged to risk and it is safe to fail as long as defined protocols are followed.  This makes good business sense.  Businesses that don’t take (reasonable) risks will not thrive because it is through risk taking that innovations occur.  To quote the Roman poet Claudian, “Change or die.”

Failure as part of lessons learned: One interesting controlled study measured two groups that were given a specific objective to complete.  Both performed after action reviews regarding the progress (or lack thereof) made by the group.  There were two key differences identified between the groups.  One group only focused on its failures while the other group focused on both its failures as well as its successes.  The group that considered both success and failure also differentiated itself from the first group because they took their review one step further.  They asked themselves what actions they can or should take the next time they are asked to perform that task.  In subsequent tests, they found that the group that performed the more complete review did significantly better in later tests.  From this, we can identify some key learnings that we can use in our projects.

  1. A review of the situation regardless of completeness provides useful insights.
  2. A review is not complete if it only considers “what we did wrong” and does not include “what we did right”.  Even in successful projects there are things we can improve upon.
  3. A review is not complete without follow up actions which include “what could we do better the next time.”

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