Capturing Lessons Learned Can Help Teams Turn Project Failure into Long-Term Project Success
Marzikmal Omar, PMI-RMP, PMP, Dagang Net Technologies Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
BY MATT ALDERTON
PORTRAITS BY VINCENT PANG
PHOTO BY AGCUESTA/SHUTTERSTOCK
Site of the canceled airport project in Mexico City, Mexico. At right, construction of the high-speed rail project in California, USA
Project failure comes in all shapes and sizes.
Mexico City's US$13 billion airport project was canceled in October even though 37 percent of the work already had been completed. And in February, an ambitious high-speed rail project in the U.S. state of California was dramatically scaled back after costs more than doubled in the past 10 years. In the private sector, Kinder Morgan canceled a project in October to convert a 964-mile (1,551-kilometer) natural gas pipeline in the United States to carry fracking byproducts—after four years of planning. The culprit: The team failed to convince local stakeholders in multiple states of the project benefits.
Fifteen percent of projects were deemed failures, according to PMI survey data collected in 2018. Yet when bad things happen, it's up to project and program managers to capture the value from an otherwise negative outcome. Whether the misfire occurred during a signature phase in a high-stakes megaproject or in the middle of a simple sprint, project professionals need to deconstruct what went wrong to ensure mistakes aren't repeated.
“Obviously, failure is always bad. When it happens, it causes frustration and losses,” says Antonio Elianti, PMP, senior project manager, Provincial Health Services Authority, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. “But if failure is properly managed, it can turn into opportunity.”
—Antonio Elianti, PMP, Provincial Health Services Authority, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
When a project goes belly up, there's always a lesson to be learned—for teams and often for organizations. Creating sustainable value from failure also means developing strong knowledge-sharing processes, such as easily accessible documentation that helps teams and organizations ingrain lessons learned across the enterprise.
“You always need a process for how to capture lessons learned,” says Andrew Okene, PMP, regional head of project management and construction, Middle East and Africa, Exterran, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “My aim is to mitigate failure, learn from it, and get better at doing the things that we have already encountered and experienced.”
Michael Uhl, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, senior technical program manager, Red Hat, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, has an agile mindset when it comes to failure. Each failed project is a minimum viable product, and he carries it with him as if each new project he works on is simply a new sprint in one big, career-spanning initiative.
“If a project fails, but you walk away with a lesson learned that you apply to 500 future projects—and those projects succeed because of that—was that project really a failure?”
When he was a program manager at Lockheed Martin, his team of scientific programmers was assigned as consultants to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which required project management support for a range of research projects. One of his projects—a yearlong initiative to create an educational animation for the EPA that illustrated to U.S. residents the consequences of everyday exposure to harmful motor vehicle emissions—ultimately failed because it did not meet the sponsor's requirements.
Mr. Uhl and the sponsor attributed the failure to poor communication. Although the team thought it had gathered the lab director's requirements correctly, there was a yearlong gap between meetings. When the team delivered the project, the lab director said the final product didn't align with his requirements.
“The key lesson there for me was: You have to have regular communication with the key stakeholder,” Mr. Uhl says. “You might have misunderstood their requirements, or their requirements might have changed, but you won't know if you're not talking to them.”
After that failure, the project team developed a more aggressive communication template for use in planning future projects. At the start of every project, the team proposed stakeholder meetings every two weeks for at least 30 minutes. And if the product owner missed multiple meetings, the team would escalate “go or no-go” decisions to management, he says. “We decided that if key stakeholders didn't show up for meetings, we were going to stop projects and let management reallocate that funding.”
Proposed trains for the now-canceled East Coast Rail Link in Malaysia
The EPA made long-term changes too, Mr. Uhl says. The organization now requires a committee of its managers to review project proposals and grade them on merit.
“If the lab director had submitted his project under that new system, it probably would not have gotten funded because it was not really appropriate for our group,” he says. “So the outcome of that failed project was not only improved project plans for us, but also improved project governance on the customer side.”
—Michael Uhl, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, Red Hat, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Sometimes, failure reveals outsized expectations by the team or the project sponsor. Marzikmal Omar, PMI-RMP, PMP, head of the project management office, Dagang Net Technologies Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, discovered this during a recent project to launch a new trade logistics system that was designed to deliver a better user experience.
TransCanada announced in 2017 the termination of Energy East Pipeline and Eastern Mainline projects
The project ultimately was deemed a failure when users rejected the new system and the team quickly reverted to the prior system. The main problems: The team was trying to implement agile project management practices without having the appropriate knowledge and training, and a lack of agile awareness by executives, Mr. Omar says.
“Everyone involved first needs to be aligned with the need for agile transformation before kickoff. The leadership team must be trained in the terminology and key processes and should be involved hands-on to provide support in order for the process to work.”
Therefore, skipping important steps in areas like planning and quality management contributed to the problems.
“We tried to cut corners, and in the end the system that was completed did not meet user expectations,” he says.
The team discovered its mistakes during a series of retrospectives that have now become standard practice for the organization. Those meetings included reviewing a comprehensive issue log—a document that details all problems and identifies how the team can mitigate them in the future, he says. The issue log helps both internal and external stakeholders conduct a root-cause analysis, during which they collectively determine the reason for project failure. The next step in the review process is a meeting during which stakeholders view the organization's project management procedures through the lens of the failed project.
“We extend lessons learned into a specific session where we try to map every process and then identify the processes we missed so that they will become part of the methodology for our next project,” Mr. Omar says. “This helps deliver more accurate, consistent and reliable results.”
—Marzikmal Omar, PMI-RMP, PMP, Dagang Net Technologies Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Failure can even help organizations identify where to trim the portfolio. Concluding that certain types of failed projects don't align with organizational strategy could generate long-term benefits in spite of short-term project losses, Mr. Okene says.
Whether the primary cause of failure is poor alignment, scope creep, ineffective risk management or defiant stakeholders, project professionals who can identify the patterns of failure can help facilitate sustainable course correction, Mr. Omar says.
“Of course, damage is done when your project fails. But you have to understand the root cause so you can fix it and do better in the next project. That's the whole point of being a project manager: After every project you do, you get better.” PM
Proactively identifying flaws is one way to prevent project failures. Here are three signs project teams need to get ahead of ailing initiatives:
It's important to break large projects into smaller pieces with distinct milestones along the way, says Marzikmal Omar, PMI-RMP, PMP, PMO head, Dagang Net Technologies Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “When the project starts to miss deadlines due to processes not being followed, that is a sign of project failure,” he says.
Measuring progress and key indicators can reveal warning signs at any phase, says Andrew Okene, PMP, regional head of project management and construction, Middle East and Africa, Exterran, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Looking at metrics like your earned value management number tells you from a quantitative point of view whether you're going in the right direction or you're going south,” he says.
—Andrew Okene, PMP, Exterran, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Comprehensive communication must cascade from the top to the bottom, demonstrating why each task is important to execute and what the consequences are if a team member fails, says Antonio Elianti, PMP, senior project manager, Provincial Health Services Authority, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. “Projects can introduce a change that should have been communicated to senior stakeholders and managed long before its implementation. If the project manager is asked by the change owners, ‘What are you trying to achieve out of this project?’ it's a sign of poor communication,” he says.
Failed projects won't wreck a career. In fact, project setbacks provide an opportunity to show resolve and resilience to hiring managers during job interviews, says Antonio Elianti, PMP, senior project manager, Provincial Health Services Authority, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Sharing prior failures can actually comfort potential employers, because they will appreciate project professionals who can articulate valuable lessons learned.
“You're often asked to share what went wrong on a past project, and I usually share that openly,” he says. “When you acknowledge that something went wrong, you also are acknowledging that you learned something from that, so it won't happen again.”
—Antonio Elianti, PMP
Project professionals also can frame a conversation by highlighting what they did right on failed projects, says Andrew Okene, PMP, regional head of project management and construction, Middle East and Africa, Exterran, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“As a good project manager, you probably mitigated the level of failure,” he says. “In that way, it's an accomplishment even though the project was not as successful as planned. If you mitigated the loss from 20 percent to 5 percent, for example, that is an achievement. You reduced the bleeding.”