Failure Can be Successful

We’ve all been there when something hasn’t gone quite as expected. In our personal lives we accept misfires, setbacks and curve balls as part of the rich tapestry of life and how we grow and evolve through it. We try our best to see these things coming our way, but inevitably sh*t happens! Unfortunately, the same challenges happen in a work environment and the best laid plans sometimes don’t deliver accordingly.

I’ve had my own experience of the unexpected and living in a world of change I hear the fluidity of the changing environment often blamed for the obstacles that suddenly appear or the disintegration of an expected deliverable.

I don’t think that’s a fair reflection. Multivariable situations are tough to navigate. They need some level of wide-eyed observation blended with a capacity for big picture thinking. However, the changing state is not to blame. I see the effectiveness of change management, project management, leadership, sponsorship, stakeholder engagement and reflections of progress as a big influence on the success of any change.

Think about the oft quoted statement that 70% of changes fail. That’s around 2in3 failing. Why so many failures? There are a myriad of ideas, theories and crystal ball gazing suggestions that have elements of truth in them. The point is that there is not one solo reason but rather a mix of many reasons. I don’t deny that a lot of those reasons revolve around poor, late or ineffective change management but it’s not where the finger should be solely pointing. Many other elements influence the pending point of doom.

I’ve been in the change field for 20 years now and I’ve seen some major catastrophes. Overspending 3 or more times the original cost – most noticed when it’s a technology based change. I’ve experienced a project executed – literally killed – half way through delivery, giving a sea of despair across all involved. I even had the misfortune to get sandwiched between senior level egos and political posturing to the detriment of achieving the end result.  A range of reasons for failure have crossed my path, but as I reflect back now, I should have seen it coming.

Now I’ve not got some special power to see into the future so how can I say I should have seen these failures coming? Hindsight is a fantastic but so underused tool. When was the last time you did a proper lessons learned review on a project and shared the results?

I am very observant and I do listen at a multitude of levels – the spoken, unspoken and implied. Looking back at the projects I’ve recently been involved in, I’m relieved to say that the great majority delivered as expected. However, in honesty, I have had a few bumps and the warning signs were there for me to see. Reflecting upon my experience with previous failed projects, helped me to see the warning signs and help me move on from a failing project very recently.

So what was I seeing that highlighted this for me? Perhaps it was my change management background, but I was looking at how things were effecting the people involved and how their involvement has changed. What did I see?

  • Disengaged observers replacing the actively involved.
  • More frequent delays, reschedules and even canceled meetings.
  • Positive conversation changing to defensive reasoning.
  • Greater requests to provide progress updates, risk reports and issues logs to the sponsor
  • Finances being more aggressively managed
  • Talk of what’s next before this was done.

Now I think that each of these alone are not necessarily warning signs, but when you see two, three or more arising at the same time is definitely the precursor to pulling the plug, surrender or closing out early.

Great, you may say. The project isn’t going to succeed so what do I do? There are three options:

  1. The “Do Nothing” – keep grinding away and hope for the best- not my recommendation;
  2. The “Do Anything” – get the train back on the track, by injecting some new energy into the project. This can work if it’s more about people losing engagement, meeting attendances falling and positive words turning defensive. Refreshing the team a little, refocusing efforts or mixing it up a little, can be just enough to get the momentum and motivation back front and centre;
  3. The “Accept Defeat” – not in a negative way of running for the hills, but in a actively critical review of what went wrong, what can we learn, and what did we do. Separate the successes from the rest and focus on their achievements, look at what didn’t work well and either accept that the rest of the change was not a good fit, or look afresh at how the remaining change can be redesigned to a move effective approach.

From my own experience I can say option 1 hurts the most, option 2 is the most energy sapping, but is perhaps the easiest for the folks on the receiving end, option 3 has the greatest challenges to get leadership buy-in but can actually turn a failure into a success story when you do achieve it, and that is something that is very possible, given the right critical success factors to change a change event itself!

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