Oct 23

What Level of Project Failure is Acceptable

Business project management software promises managers and executives sophisticated dashboard reporting that provides all the information they need to ensure work management success. However, I wonder if a high visibility view into project performance is enough.

Earlier this year, project management expert and author Harvey Levine was asked, “We have recently seen an up tick in Yellow and Red projects among our portfolios. This has raised an interesting question. ‘Is there any research that would tell us what the ideal mix of Red/Yellow/Green is on a portfolio?'”

Harvey’s response was what you would expect, and spot on. “In my view, there is no such thing as an ideal mix. It’s like asking, ‘what level of failure is ideal?’ Is there a standard for level of failure? This isn’t a QA application. We’re talking about project investments here. Failure of projects leads to failure of the enterprise. The ideal mix, if there was such a thing, is 100% green.”

Yellow or Red indicators that don’t initiate some kind of action just don’t make sense. When a stop light goes red, don’t you put on the brakes? Harvey offers three suggestions for working with a dashboard system:

1. Set meaningful thresholds for the yellow and red alarms

2. Establish standardized routines for reporting deficiencies and corrective action

3. Look at trends as well as current data

Define what the warning lights mean and create a structured and appropriate response. For example, a yellow indicator for an individual task might be a greater cause for alarm than the same indicator for an entire project. However, a Red indicator should elicit immediate corrective action regardless of whether it is associated with a task or a project.

The dashboard isn’t useful because of the visual indicators, but in how well those indicators initiate the actions required to pull an identified task or project back on course.

Is Failure an Option?

I don’t think anyone would deny that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. However, did you know that he missed something like 9000 shots, lost almost 300 games, and took the game winning shot 26 times, and missed?

I occasionally receive a newsletter from OpenView Venture Partners, which included an interesting post this morning by Scott Maxwell, You Need to Fail More!. He suggests that our culture is “…stuck with the notion that we must plan and then act and, if there is a failure, then it was either a failure in planning or execution.”

I believe it is a mistake to look at problem solving this way. So does Maxwell who argues, “Most situations and all new situations are unpredictable, so the best approach is to get a quick implementation, identify the issues and opportunities, and then iterate again. Follow this iterative approach a few times and you will eventually find almost all the issues and be able to perform at the best level possible.”

He suggests that most people would call this “failing multiple times,” but he considers it success. So do I. Creative problem solving is rarely successful right out of the gate. Michael Jordan is a great example of someone we universally accept as incredibly successful on the court, but even Michael wasn’t 100% successful 100% of the time.

Maxwell points us to this short Michael Jordan commercial for Nike to make his point. It’s only about 30 seconds long, but worth watching. For most of us project based work includes, among other things, the occasional failure. Regardless of your work management methodology or the project management tools you use, the difference between success and failure is our ability to learn from our mistakes and improve.

What do you do to ensure that mistakes become learning opportunities?