6 Reasons We Don’t Learn from Project Failures

Question: What’s worse than a project that failed? Answer: Not learning anything from that failure. Examining failures, dissecting their causes, identifying ways to avoid repeating mistakes, and implementing better project management practices are some of the most important methods available to us in our quest to become better project managers. Here we’ve rounded up some of the most common reasons that even seasoned project professionals don’t always learn from their mistakes.

1 – We don’t recognize the project’s failure. Think you know when a project has failed or succeeded? Think again. It’s not uncommon that others (usually end users) see a host of unmet objectives while you move on to the next project thinking you accomplished everything you set out to do. The causes behind this lack of recognition are often tied to either poor planning (you didn’t set the right objectives in the first place) or lack of good follow up efforts (things were left uncompleted but you never checked back with end users to be sure their needs were met).

2 – We assume the failure was out of our control. While circumstances do occasionally make project success difficult or even impossible, it’s rare. Instead, it’s more likely that potential outside influences weren’t properly identified, investigated, and accounted for during the planning phase. Even if issues crop up after initial planning has been completed, your team needs to take ownership of managing—and possibly modifying—expectations so you and your stakeholders continue forward on the same page.

3 – We pin the failure’s cause on another group. Project Teams will forever rely on other departments or business partners to get things done. No matter if your collaborators are internal groups or external providers, they depend on you to clearly set expectations and define the project’s parameters. Whether Purchasing is unable to negotiate prices that fit your budget or Real Estate is delayed in securing the lease on a new space, pushing the blame for project failure onto them is usually just a reflection of inadequate oversight on your part.

4 – We don’t take the time to identify where the project broke down. Chalking up a project failure should immediately set you on a course to pinpoint how you missed your target and where things started to go off-track. Simply moving on to the next project without conducting a thorough post-mortem—either because you’re too busy or don’t feel you can do anything about the failure’s triggers even if you identify them—is setting yourself up to the repeat the failure in the future.

5 – We blame the failure on a lack of funding or other necessary resources. Good project planning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your objectives and timeframe must work in concert with the resources allocated to you. You may occasionally face a situation where funding was initially approved but has since been cut, forcing you to curtail or even cancel your project. That type of situation is likely something you couldn’t have foreseen and which may indeed lead to a failed project. However, setting objectives at the outset without the funding or other resources to back them up is a planning mistake that shouldn’t happen, and one that’s squarely in your power to correct.

6 – We see failure as unavoidable. An organization’s politics, culture, or methods of operation are sometimes viewed as recipes for project disaster. Instead of addressing these issues, Project Teams may see ongoing failure as their lot in life. In this scenario, your ability to influence a bad situation through the use of good project management practices may be your only defense.

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