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Projects failing is a natural part of all business operations, with some statistics showing that up to 70% of all projects fail (i.e. fail to come in either on time, on budget or with the outcomes they were supposed to have). What’s worse is, the bigger the project, the more likely it is to fail to meet the criteria of success, with nearly 20% of IT projects, for example, failing so badly they could destroy their organization, according to McKinsey and University of Oxford.

So, with project failures being so ubiquitous and potentially disastrous, what silver lining can actually be drawn from something that goes horribly wrong? Well, knowing how to learn from project failures can actually be very beneficial on personal, team and company levels. As writer and speaker Denis Waitley has artfully suggested, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.”

How to Learn from Project Failures

  1. Find out what can be salvaged

Though a project might have failed on several fronts and had to be completely abandoned, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all is lost. A good way of doing this is to approach each team and ask them what they felt was beneficial or could be used moving forward. Whether it’s unique reporting templates that were specifically drawn up, white papers or marketing material or an online registration and logging API, work done has value and a good search through the rubble will find it.

  1. Analyze what went wrong from all angles

It can often be easy for everyone involved, especially at a senior level, to blame project failures on the closest point of contact to the mistake or the weakest link. For example, the terrible tragedy of the Challenger Space Shuttle exploding shortly after take-off was found to have been caused by an incorrectly designed O-ring seal.

While it could have been easy just to blame the manufacturer or the designer of the specific part, the root-and-branch review of the disaster found that poor lines of communication from engineers up the line to senior management meant that problems that had been noted with the seal were not passed on or acted upon. Even a seemingly clear-cut failure at ground level can reveal issues running all the way to the top.

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  1. Improve project estimation

A major reason for projects failing to come in on time or budget is that the initial estimations never gave them a chance. Many project failures are predestined before they even get out of the planning phase. Getting better at project estimation takes time and effort, but one process which makes it easier is to give very clear reasoning about why certain estimates were made at the planning phase. If the project does end in failure, it will then be easier to assess what precise part of the prediction process had been at fault.

  1. Track progress

When a project or several concurrent projects are in full flow, it can be easy to lose sight of the documentation process. How did a collaboration with a contractor go? What was the result of introducing new software? How well did project milestones match up with their due dates? For a project manager it can be greatly beneficial to keep a small project log, a diary of the day or week’s events which can then be checked back over during any post-mortem of a failed project.

Using project management tools such as Clarizen’s suite of PM tools allows all teams to accurately track projects and review tasks and deliverables, so failure can be both analysed and prevented from happening in the first place. Check out our features to see how they can fit your needs for analysis and risk assessment.

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