Yes, you read it right…when are you planning to fail ?
In the world where insatiable hunger for ‘success’ is an obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD), we don’t think of ‘failure’ much. It is shunned, scoffed at, systematically eliminated (or mitigated, at least), avoided, bypassed, ignored….everything but embraced with open mind and open arms. All management ideasÂ are directed towards the age-old wisdom of “if youÂ fail to plan, you plan to fail” and not on something like…”what won’t kill you only makes you stronger”. All project management philosophies are centred around safeguarding the projects from any possible failures…but has that stopped projects from grand failures? Every risk management action is towards making the project safe from failing…and yet we still see so many projects biting the dust, struggling for survival. Failure appears to beÂ a social embarrassment that is best avoided at dinner table conversations. New-age enterpreunership, especially in Internet world, has helped a lot to eliminate the stigma that eventually comes with people associated with any well-known failure, but in everyday lives, we still continue to play safe, rather extremely safe. Of course, I am not talking about breaking the law and driving without seat-belts on or driving in the middle of the road jeopardizing everyone’s life. I am talking about thinking like Fosbury and challenging the established way a high jump is done – even at the risk of failing because what you are about to propose hasn’t been tested and certified to succeed. I am talking about taking those small daily gambles that strenghten you when they fail. I am not interested in those small daily gambles that are supposed to strenghten you if they succeed – honestly, they don’t teach you anything. In fact, those small successes might limit your ability to reach for higher skies because you remain contended by those sweet-smelling early successes. In my view, people who don’t want to risk gentle failures must prepare themselves for grand failure !
The word ‘fail’ is such a four-letter word that is evokes very strong emotional responses. In an achievement-oriented society and success-intoxicated corporate culture, fear of failure drives people to seek safer havens. When choosing what subjects to take in college, we ‘force’ our children to take the ‘safest’ subjects – they are the subjects that have maximum job potential ensure maximum longevity in job market. (I agree that ‘force’ is not the right word here, but it is not in its literal sense that I use this word here. The ‘force’ can come from parental expectations, societal pressure, peer pressure, ‘coolnees’ of a job, perks of the job, etc.). Traditionally, they have been Engineering and Medicine and anything else that ensured a government job (in India, and I am sure every country has hadÂ its own fixations at different times).Â So, the foundation to seek safety from failureÂ gets laidÂ right at the start of one’s career (well, in my view it is erected right after birth and we are still curing it by the time we start our careers, but that’s for another blog post). After graduating, there is once again a massive derisking operation: find some company that has a ‘big’ name (even if one is doing a fairly mechanical job there). Basically, tradeÂ any hopes or ambitions to do something new and creative in life with rock-solid jobb safety in a mundane assignment! As a rookie, you then become a link in this enormous chain where your job is dictated by the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) that trade your urge to experiment / innovate with a higher ‘percieved’ safety of the given process. The logic being: this is the way we know it has been done before, and since it worked the last time, we expect it will always work and hence this is the standard procedure. Wow !
You then become a manager and have to now run a project. You have the ‘process police’ breathing down your neck challenging every single thought, let alone a decision, to deviate from those SOPs. You want to try an innovative recruitment…no, that is too risky. Why not first prototype this sub-system…no, the finance won’t allow that because we can’t bill the customer since nothing tangible has been delivered. How about a 200% make-or-break bonus for this team that is up against Mission Impossible….no way ! we will have mutiny in other projects. How about this….and how about that… Finally you give up and give in…and the project somehow starts. Most optimizations, if any, have been seriously watered down by now, and are highly local at best. The result is predictable – no substantial improvement from the previous project, at best, and an utter fiasco, at worst.
Let’s pause for a moment and quickly run through the script here. We are taking every beaten path that has individually been successful in the past (or so we have been told), and yet there is no guarantee of success in its next run. In each of these situations, the project manager faces the music – after all, the process did work the last time and if it is not working this time, this must be a capability issue (or, even worse, attitude issue) with the manager. Being at short end of the stick and facing an imminent loss of professional credibility, the manager pushes his team to burn themselves over really late evenings and long weekends and somehow gets past the finish line…but not before incurring emotional and professional scars, not before pruning down some of the original features, not without some ‘known’ bugs in the release and definitely not before going way above the original budget.
What went wrong ? We did everything to prevent ‘failure’ but we still failed to deliver a decent product on-time, within budget (even if overtime is unpaid, it still means shooting out of the budget), blah, blah, blah …???
This is what went wrong – in order to safeguard our project from any (all?)Â possible failures, we fortified the project. We poured money like water to avoid being mousetrapped. We used innovative processes that allowed us to take baby steps and gain early successes. Those early successes, after all, helped us validate our assumptions and only then did we go all out. And yet? In this process of scaffolding the project, we actually erected artificial life-support systems to make the project stand on its feet. Most assumptions were then tested in isolation for its validity under ‘standard test conditions’. Unfortunately, those early successes gave a false illusion that everything was fine, even though several of the chinks in the armor were not fully exposed. Absence of ‘gentle failures’ early in the project lifecycle ensured that the team thought they were on rock-solid footing. However, in reality, we could never fully guarantee that, especially when those early cycles were done with the intent to make something work and not make something fail ! Imagine you were testing a tool to detect landmines. To do acceptance testing of the equipment, you operate it under ‘specified test conditions’ and accept it. However, the enemy won’t lay mines under those very standard test conditions! Chances are extremely high that enemy’s plan will fail your equipment. I am only asking you to fail it yourself before someone else does it for you.
Here is something you might want to do on your next project. Identify all possible and potential ‘points of failure’ in the project (there are always more than one). Challenge everything and everyplace where Mr. Murphy can strike. Design the project plan to fail, fail softly, fail early and fail as often as required to ensure there is no grand failure (or at least a significantly lower chances of a grand failure). Design your test criteria such that success is measured by how many of those assumptions have failed. Cull out important lessons from those failures and now build your project plan to avoid grand failures. Of course, you won’t completely eliminate grand failures, but will have moved a couple of steps closer to avoid them or minimize their impact compared to what an early success approach would have given you.
So…when are you planning to fail ?