The courage to fail



by Steve DelGrosso, PMP

Project leaders and their teams should be encouraged to take prudent risks, even if that means they fail every now and then.

We are in a world of unending flux. The business landscape has changed, stakeholder expectations have changed, the workforce has changed and even project management practices have changed. Yet one thing remains the same: A company's culture must still promote risk-taking.

Even if taking a calculated gamble results in failure, that can be a boon. I learned this early in my career when I led the design and installation of a new material-handling system used in an electronic printed circuit-card manufacturing plant. I was new to project management at the time, but as an engineer I believed I had provided detailed specifications for system requirements.

Unfortunately, I had yet to hone the most basic project management skills, so I failed to use any type of risk-management planning or take advantage of the skills offered by the broader project team. Undiscovered stakeholder requirements appeared each week, long after the equipment orders had been placed.


As you might expect, this constant change impacted the project cost and schedule, eventually forcing me to explain to my manager why the project was not on track. My manager, an old-school manufacturing engineer known as “the Bear” because of his imposing physical stature, greeted me with a worried look. The installation of a new solder machine and scrubber depended on the installation of my conveyor system.

He knew there was a possibility that I'd fail, but the Bear took a chance on me. He was not only understanding of what had happened, but also paired me with an experienced engineer for the rest of the project. As the project reached a much smoother conclusion, I discovered that my near-failure helped me grow as a project manager.

Fast-forward to today, where I find myself in a leadership position quite different than the Bear's back in that manufacturing plant. I am part of a team of experienced program managers who are called upon to assist project teams running behind schedule or over cost targets on complex engagements.

Recently, I tried to help rescue a project that not only had technical and schedule issues to overcome, but language barriers as well. Upon arrival, I determined some fundamental project management issues were preventing team members from performing to their highest levels. For example, the project manager had not enforced documented change management processes, thus allowing unauthorized changes to be forced through by our client. There also wasn't a formal communications management plan, so team meetings with our global colleagues were ad hoc, infrequent and ineffective. Finally, a sense of urgency was not instilled in all team members, despite the fact that the project was running over cost and behind schedule.

I quickly addressed the project management issues by insisting on documented and approved client change requests, conducting daily teleconferences with our global colleagues, and holding “scrums”—brief project status meetings—with all our team leaders to inject the missing exigency.

We also brought in additional technical subject-matter experts who helped turn things around. Unfortunately, the stakeholders had lost patience as a result of our schedule slips and eventually postponed implementation—even though the project was back on track.

This was a personal failure, for sure—but one that actually produced almost immediate payoff for me. Near the end of my 10 weeks with the group, I discovered that the client was impressed with my efforts to get the project back on track. They wanted our team to compete for a similar project in another part of the company. In a vote of confidence, my executive team asked me to lead the effort to pull together a proposed implementation plan and schedule for the second program, which was even bigger than the original effort.

I helped organize a program management office and select a new project manager. I remained involved as an executive sponsor for more than a year while the team rolled out the program on schedule and under budget.


The economic downturn of the past two years has increased anxiety for many project managers who are working long hours to deliver projects. Too many have their heads down, focusing solely on delivering on time and on budget. They're afraid of failing because they're afraid of losing their jobs. This myopic viewpoint can lead to reduced risk-taking when it comes to accepting assignments or trying something new.

During a time as stressful as this, I'm grateful to work in an environment where an occasional failure is viewed as a learning opportunity and where risk-taking can lead to reward.

It is incumbent on an organization's senior leadership team to establish a culture and promote core values that allow employees to take prudent risks and learn from past failures. There can be no better way to develop people than to encourage them to stretch themselves—even as we recognize that stretching introduces a potential risk for failure. The reward is a more experienced project management staff ready to lead more complex projects. PM


Steve DelGrosso, PMP, is the director of the project management center of excellence and global business services project management competency at IBM Global Business Services, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. He served as the vice chair of the PMI Global Corporate Council.




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