Get out there and fail

the power of persistence

Abstract

Are you familiar with the sentence “I made a mistake?” I am familiar with it; unfortunately, however, not every project management professional is able to admit to a mistake in front of an audience, and sometimes, when people fail, many don't try again and then they quit. Alexander Graham Bell said: “What power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.” This paper is based on real stories about the power of persistence, the power of trying hard, and making more than one attempt in order to be successful in managing projects. Persistence and patience are very interrelated and both require time and effort. In my experience, every project management professional must cultivate and develop persistence and transmit enthusiasm and positivity to his or her team.

Introduction

I have failed numerous times in my professional life, but I am always willing to fail and keep failing until I succeed. Projects are performed by human beings who make right and wrong decisions during the project life cycle, and this is the part of human behavior that many executives forget during the execution of projects in their own organizations. How we learn from success and failure characterizes a project-learning organization. One of the obligations of executives is to plan on doing retrospective analyses with their project managers during each project's life cycle. If lessons learned sessions are not built into the project plan, they will never take place.

In a general sense, trying hard and making many attempts show commitment and persistence. Taking into account that projects are uncertain endeavors, project teams and project managers can achieve right or wrong results. Depending on the points of view of these teams and leaders, those results will be considered as failures or as opportunities to learn. The learning attitude is a good characteristic of the right project leader. Every day, I learn something new in my project, and it does not matter if I learn from my employees, my customer, or from other project stakeholders. Good ideas or feedback can come from anywhere. The most important thing to learn is how to turn a project failure into a project success.

Background

I remember learning to ride a bicycle as a child. Perhaps you had a similar bike-learning experience, which probably began with training wheels. Eventually, when these “crutches” were removed, keeping your balance became more difficult. Yet, while you struggled to stay upright, maybe even falling a few times and scraping yourself, you were learning an important early lesson about failure.

As you practiced, it is likely that one of your parents walked beside you shouting instructions, encouraging you, and catching you when you lost your balance. You were scared, but excited. You looked forward to the time when you would succeed, when you would finally be able to ride on your own. Or, maybe you didn't think at all because you were so wrapped up in the experience and how to accomplish the activity. Nobody called you a failure, nor were you worried about failing. So, you kept at it every day, and eventually mastered the skill of riding a bike. What contributed to your ultimate success in learning how to ride your bike? (Exhibit 1)

Contributors to Success

Exhibit 1 – Contributors to Success

Certainly, persistence and sheer repetition paid off! You were going to stick with it no matter how long it took. It also helped that you were enthusiastic about what you set out to achieve and that you could hardly wait to reach your goal. And, finally, let's not underestimate the impact of positive encouragement. You always knew your parents were in your corner, supporting you, and rooting for your success.

As a youngster learning to ride your bike, you were optimistic, thrilled, and eager to meet the challenge. You could not wait to try again, because you knew you would master it eventually. But that was a long time ago!

Yesterday and Today

Now, let's examine how most adults approach the development of new skills. Let's assume we asked a group of adults to learn a new software program or to switch to another position in the company. How would most respond? They would try to avoid it, complain, make up excuses as to why they shouldn't have to do it, doubt their abilities, and feel afraid.

As adults, most of us are too concerned about the opinions of others, often hesitating because people may laugh at us or criticize us. As children, we knew we had to fall off that bike and get back on to learn a new skill. Falling off the bike was not a “bad” thing. But, as we got older, we started to perceive falling off as a bad thing, rather than an essential part of the process of achieving our goal. It can be uncomfortable trying something new, perhaps even scary. But if you take your eyes off your goal and instead focus your attention on how others may be viewing you, you are doing yourself a grave disservice. To develop a new skill or reach a meaningful target, you must be committed to doing whatever it takes to get there, even if it means putting up with negative feedback or failing every now and then.

Successful people have learned to “fail” their ways to success. Although they may not particularly enjoy their “failures,” they recognize them as necessary parts of the road to victory. After all, becoming proficient at any skill requires time, effort, discipline, and the willingness to persevere through whatever difficulties may arise. Persistence is the key.

The Greatest Mistake

When I ask you to name the best basketball player of all time, who comes to mind? I am guessing that many of you immediately think of Michael Jordan. He gets my vote. Let me share this statistic with you; Michael Jordan has a career shooting percentage of 50 percent; in other words, half of the shots he took in his career were “failures.”

Of course, this principle is not limited to sports. We also know that entertainment stars and media personalities are no strangers to failure. I spent many years learning the basics of project management, and I still make mistakes in some of the projects I manage; however, I try to learn from them. I admit my failures in front of my employees. I am not Superman! I make mistakes every day but, at the end of the day, I try to summarize my mistakes and promise myself to make adjustments and plan for the next day to be great. So, if you keep trying, developing yourself, and making adjustments along the way, you are going to succeed. You simply need to get enough at-bats, go on enough auditions, and visit enough potential clients.

Each time I make a mistake managing a project, I acknowledge it and say “I made a mistake, I will do all my best to correct my mistake, and my apologies for that.” It is this type of behavior I try to convey to my employees and it is this attitude that has been very helpful in my role as a project manager. So, the greatest mistakes a project manager can make are not acknowledging that something went wrong and not saying “I made a mistake.”

The Power of Persistence

I believe commitment is the essence of a learning attitude. The key to getting what you want is the willingness to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish your objective. What do I mean by “willingness?” Willingness is a mental attitude that says: If it takes five steps to reach my goal, I'll take those five steps, but if it takes 30 steps to reach my goal, I will be persistent and take those 30 steps. In most projects, you don't know how many steps you will need to take to reach your goal or to accomplish your deliverables. This does not matter. To succeed, all that is necessary is that you make a commitment to do whatever it takes, regardless of the number of steps or activities involved.

Persistent action follows commitment. First, you must be committed to something before you'll persist to achieving it. Once you make a commitment to achieving your goal, then you will follow through with relentless determination and action until you attain the desired result. I have found that the most difficult thing to do is how to convince the team of the big impact on business that commitment has on organizations. When you make a commitment and you are willing to do whatever it takes, including the effort to communicate a clear, convincing, and compelling message, you begin to attract the people and circumstances necessary to accomplishing your goal.

For instance, several years ago I was responsible for implementing a PMO (Project Management Office) at a multinational IT company. The manager of that organization did not believe in project management. My team consisted of junior people, without experience in project management; however, I achieved tangible results in a few months. The key to project success was, in my mind, “turning a potential failure into a possible success” and this was an incredible motivator. I spent a lot of time meeting project stakeholders and searching for project allies in the organization, meeting team members, explaining the purpose and objectives of the project office, and training them on the basics of project management.

In this story, the key to project success was taking the time to explain that each project manager must be accountable and responsible for his or her tasks and activities, which meant getting team members to fully commit to the project. Speaking truthfully about the project to all project stakeholders was also a key to success. I created a need to learn the project life cycle, identifying right and wrong insights. I believe that once you commit yourself to something, you create a mental picture of what it would be like to achieve it. Then, your mind immediately starts working, attracting events, circumstances, and people that help bring your vision to reality.

It is important to realize, however, that this is not a quick process; you need to be persistent and, most importantly, educate and support your employees about persistence. I believe this is a must for project success. Usually, project failure precedes project success, but success will come, especially if all project stakeholders are ready to learn, take time to reflect, and take action toward achieving the desired results.

My Rules of Persistence

Therefore, I have created some “Rules of persistence for my projects and for myself:” (Exhibit 2)

Persistence Rules

Exhibit 2 – Persistence Rules

1.   No regrets. I will follow my dreams to the fullest. With all my energy, I will give it my complete will and effort. So, even if the desired result does not come about, I will have no regrets. I will know that I have tried. I honor all decisions that were made, because they came from my freedom to choose, and I will accept the consequences.

2.   I will live and activate my dreams through little actions, inch by inch, one step at a time—I need not take major actions each day, but each measurable step forward will bring me that much closer to my goal.

3.   I will live in the moment, not in the past and not too much into the future. The full realization of the present will make the future come about on its own. Let me focus all my energies on the present so that I don't rue the time lost by dwelling on the past or future.

4.   I will keep my goals always in sight. I have written down goals, which I carry in my wallet. I make a daily habit of going over them at least once. I also keep my list of goals in other places, such as the wallpaper on my computer screen, so I am always reminded of them.

5.   I realize that obstacles will come about. I need to work around them. Goals are what lie beyond all the stumbling blocks; if I cannot jump over them, then I will walk around them. It might take longer, but eventually I will get around the block.

6.   I will focus on one or two goals only. Focus is the concentration on one single point. It's much easier to be persistent when we have clarity of a single goal. Too many goals dissipate our energies, and loss of energy is always followed by loss of persistence.

7.   I will trust myself. When others can do it, so can I. I use this mantra every day. I know all the power to achieving my goals lies within me and I only have to harness it.

8.   I will take a break. I have to replenish my energy. After every slight success, it's important to savor the reward, chill out for a while, and then return to work rejuvenated.

9.   I will be flexible. Constant action sometimes demands inconstant methods. If one way is not working too well, then I will try to find out some other way to do it. There is always more than one way to get things done.

10. I will be patient. What defeats persistence is time. Time is our greatest friend, as well as our greatest enemy. Persistent action by its very extension means overcoming an obstacle over time. So, I have to make time my ally and trust that, with patience, I will complete my goal. If I can progress a little each day, I will have used my time efficiently.

Never Give Up

In 2002, the IT manager of a savings bank called our office to inquire about our project management services, products, and publications. Every time we called to follow up, he said that he was “thinking about it and had not made a decision yet.”

In the beginning, we called him every week. No sale. Then, we called once a month. No sale. For a few years, we kept calling this gentleman and continued to send him quarterly newsletters and flyers, and all we had to show for these efforts was one failure after another. But, in the autumn of 2004, a representative of his company called our office, and we were hired to deliver a consulting and training program for more than 150 employees. When I met the IT manager in person, he told me, “I was impressed with your persistence. Someone from your office kept calling me for years, and did not give up.” Sure, we put up with years of failure, but it was all worth it when we made that sale.

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Let me share with you another example. In 2007, I was elected as PMI Madrid Chapter President. PMI Madrid had about 250 members and had few activities and very few success stories. I wanted to change the situation generating more activities for my chapter members, but some of the members of the Chapter Board gave up. However, we now have a financially healthy situation and we have grown to 439 members. Although voluntarism is essential for this association, it is difficult to come by in Spain. Moving forward is difficult but it is not impossible. TODAY IS A GOOD DAY. I will continue to work hard and try to motivate and encourage my team and our members.

Are You Getting the Results You Want?

If you are not getting the results you want or have been discouraged by failures, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I have an unrealistic timetable? Maybe you expect to “skip steps” and succeed on a grand scale immediately. Success is usually achieved by climbing one step at time. You do not always know how long it will take to advance to the next level, so, be patient with yourself and resist the temptation to compare your progress with that of anyone else's. You will advance faster than some, slower than others. Maintain a great attitude, take action, make adjustments, and the results will follow.
  2. Am I truly committed? It is essential for me that you be willing to do whatever it takes and that you banish any thought of giving up before you accomplish your objective. Of course, it is much easier to be committed when you love what you are doing; therefore, go after the goals you are passionate about and do not think of quitting.
  3. Do I have too many discouraging influences? Unsuccessful results can be frustrating, which is why we need to surround ourselves with people who support and believe in us. If you hang around with negative people who are highly critical or who are doing very little in their own lives, your energy and enthusiasm will be drained. Therefore, develop a network of individuals to encourage and coach you toward success.
  4. Am I preparing to succeed? Success in any endeavor requires thorough preparation. Are you taking steps to learn everything you can about accomplishing your goal? This means reading books, listening to tapes, taking courses, and networking with highly successful people in your field. It might mean finding a mentor or getting a coach to work with you. Successful individuals are always sharpening their skills. Successful people often do the same things over and over without making necessary adjustments. So, allow yourself to be “coachable.” Accept the fact that you do not already know it all and find the resources to keep you on track and moving forward.
  5. Am I truly willing to fail? Face it, failure is inevitable and you will encounter defeat prior to succeeding. In our hearts, we know our most valuable lessons come from our failures. Failure is essential for growth. Look failure squarely in the face and see it as a natural part of the success process. Then, failure will lose its power over you. The truth is, when you are not afraid to fail, you are well on the way to success. Welcome failure as an unavoidable yet vital component in the quest to achieving your goals. Be tolerant of failure in others and in the organization and encourage a process of learning from those failures.

Turning Failure into Success

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Your failures are learning experiences that point out the adjustments you must make. Never try to hide from failure, because that approach guarantees that you will take virtually no risks and achieve very little. The singer Beverly Sills once remarked, “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you do not try.” No, you will not close every sale, nor will you make money on every investment. Life is a series of wins and losses, even for the most successful. The winners in life know that you crawl before you walk and you walk before you run, and with each new goal comes a new set of failures. It is your choice to treat these disappointments as either temporary setbacks and challenges to overcome, or as insurmountable obstacles. If you make it your business to learn from every defeat and stay focused on the end result you wish to attain, failure will eventually lead you to success.

Case Study

The Maine Medicaid Claims System project is a case study of a project gone awry. The project was undertaken to switch from their legacy systems to a new web-based system to process Medicaid claims and facilitate HIPAA compliance (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). As a result of the failed project, Maine is now the only state in the union not in compliance with HIPAA.

In the Maine Medicaid Claims System project, system problems led to many claims ending up in limbo, leading to hundreds of calls from health care practitioners, nearly 300,000 patients being turned away, several dentists and therapists going out of business, and destroying Maine's finances and credit rating. So, what went wrong?

Mistakes included the following:

  • Deciding to develop an entire system from scratch using unproven technology, while other states built a front-end onto their legacy systems
  • Caving in to pressure from management to meet tight deadlines with inadequate resources instead of pushing for a realistic plan to begin with
  • Failing to notice why other bidders either didn't bid or came in way higher (a sign that the schedule was unrealistic)
  • Hiring a vendor with no experience in developing Medicaid claims systems because they were the lowest bidder
  • Not having a Medicaid expert on the team, leading to errors in judgment
  • Underestimating the time needed to meet with subject matter experts
  • Competing with another major initiative (a department merger) for executives' attention and resources
  • Skipping project management basics (including piloting, adequate end-to-end testing, staff and user training, etc.) due to looming deadline pressures
  • Failing to stop, regroup, and analyze the risks
  • Taking a “big bang” approach to cutover with no contingency or backup should something go wrong

Management's response, of course, was to switch program managers and issue stronger demands to ensure a smooth system, but none of the changes or demands made much of a difference. Consultants were brought in to prioritize the many problems, but still, the complexities proved too much. It wasn't until a Medicaid expert was brought in that things began to gel.

Like many project failures, it's easy to point to the project management (and certainly there are many shortcomings there in this case), but the organization must share the blame as well if it insists on unrealistic deadlines and leads by fear (fear of shareholders, fear of competition, fear of management, etc.). None of these variables can make an unrealistic schedule more realistic. It's really very simple: Either adequate resources must be committed, the expectations lowered, or a more piecemeal approach taken (or all three, if applicable). In any case, the schedule must be realistic, and risks need to be managed.

Summary

  • Projects are performed by human beings who make right and wrong decisions during the project life cycle. This is the part of human behavior that many executives forget during project execution.
  • Good ideas or feedback can come from anywhere. The most important thing is knowing how to move from project failure to project success
  • It can be uncomfortable trying something new, perhaps even scary. But if you take your eyes off the goal and instead focus your attention on how others may be viewing you, you are doing yourself a grave disservice
  • Every time I make I mistake managing a project, I acknowledge it and say “I made a mistake, I will do all my best to correct my mistake, and I apologize for it.” This is the type of behavior I demonstrate to my employees.
  • I believe commitment is the essence of a learning attitude. The key to getting what you want is the willingness to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish your objective
  • It is important to realize, however, that this is not a quick process; you need to be persistent and, most importantly, educate and support your employees about persistence. I believe that persistence is a must for project success

Bucero, A. The right mix. PM Network Magazine (2004, January): Project Management Institute

Bucero, A. Smart emotions. PM Network Magazine. (2004, November): Project Management Institute

Bucero, A. Follow the leader. PM Network Magazine (2006, May): Project Management Institute

Bucero, A. TODAY IS A GOOD DAY, Ontario, Canada: Multimedia Publications 2010.

Bucero, A. Why attitude is important for project success. PMI EMEA, 2010 Congress, Milan, Italy.

Graham, R. J., & Englund, R. L. Creating an environment for successful projects (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004. www.josseybass.com.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC - USA

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