Does your company use the F-word? No, not that one. I am talking about the word “failure.”
I talk about IT project failures and failure in general in every IT Governance-related presentation I deliver. I have written a number of blog posts in the past on the topic of project failure. I have urged folks to follow my good friend Michael Krigsman, aka @mkrigsman, who writes a fantastic ZDNet-based blog called “IT Project Failures.” http://www.zdnet.com/blog/projectfailures.
I have heard a number of people chastise Michael for writing a blog post “focused on failure.” They ask him, “Why not focus on project successes?” This retort is very similar to the frequently defensive response and litany of rationalizations I receive when I visit organizations and ask them, “What is your project failure rate?” It is these types of responses that get to the heart of my post:
Organizations must use the F-word. They must use failure as a springboard to success. Here’s how:
Recognize that failure is an option
Everyone knows that nobody is perfect. Put posters up to remind folks. Recognizing the inevitability of failure is absolutely prerequisite to achieving any of the benefits failures potentially provide.
View inevitable failures as preventable and manage the contradiction
Once an organization recognizes failures are inevitable, they must simultaneously view them as preventable. Accepting this apparent contradiction is essential if there is to be any chance of fostering the unending quest to prevent failures in spite of the impossibility to do so.
Remove the stigma of failure
Elements of this are accomplished when organizations recognize failure as an option and accept their inevitability, but it’s not enough. The initial response to failure cannot be punitive. The pursuit of cause must not be driven by the desire or need to assign fault or blame. Leaders must foster a culture that makes it safe to fail if there is any chance of cultivating the trust required for folks to freely and readily share bad news.
Define failure and interpret it as a fact-based metric-driven indicator
Failure is a state. Failure is a condition. To be exact: failure is an omission of occurrence or performance. Organizations must specifically define these omissions so the term is correctly and consistently applied.
Treat failure as a learning opportunity
The ultimate goal of each of the above recommendations is to enable the establishment of the foundation and mechanisms to learn from failure. The first impulse and the immediate response to failure should be to learn from that failure. This learning is used to correct, minimize, or overcome the failure and apply all associated insights to attempt to prevent failures in the future.
Bob Marshall from the UK aka @flowchainsensei captured it beautifully in a past post:
“Canceled projects are only failures when the learning they generate is lost.”
I am looking forward to the day when every organization has the attitude and outlook to learn from their failures. The first step is being able to use the F-word.
~ Steve 10/09/2011 ~