Failure is not an option.
No, it's inevitable.
The issues is, first, will I accept that reality? Then can I act so that when I do fail, it is cheap and useful? When I do fail I do not do something worse: take failure as my identity. No, I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is, did I learn from that failure?
Failure is not an option ... it's inevitable.
Time was when we would develop methodologies that tried to avoid failure altogether. I now realise that this attempt was impossible and even dangerous. The way it was typically evidenced in project management was to start further and further back in design:
"We need a plan first." (This seems like good sense, doesn't it?)
"Well, we need a business case first." (Of course, who would argue with that; I wouldn’t.)
"Yes but before that, we need a Project Brief."
"Yes, but before that, we need a Project Mandate."
"OK, but before that, we need some Strategic Objectives."
"Yes, but first we need our Vision, Mission and Values."
We can carry this seemingly-rational nonsense on for as long as we wish - many consultants and business gurus do just that.
Confession time: I own up to having done that as well.
I have repented!
I sometimes think we have created a management Catch 22, where we never achieve anything substantive.
But when do we do get around to doing something? Where is the execution?
"Oh, no. We're not ready for that yet. What if we do the wrong thing or do it badly?"
I sometimes think we've created a kind of management Catch 22 where we go around and around in ever decreasing circles, never achieving anything substantive. Fear of failure has become a sort of management political correctness. It's time to face this demon.
Is failure always a bad thing? What if the worst failure of all is never achieving a return on our efforts. I believe this is a subtle and sophisticated paralysis by analysis.
The world is more complex than our models.
There are three challenges we need to face in breaking out of this syndrome:
I remember when I spoke alongside my friend and former colleague, Richard Rose, at an Agile Project Management conference. We found many there who were new to Agile. Others, by contrast, had been so long immersed in Agile practice that they had forgotten the real value of incremental, Just-Enough-Design-Up-Front management.
At one point I said, "Failure is not an option, it's inevitable." I saw lights go on all around the room.
Those weary with traditional management that promised much but delivered little, and those immersed in newer, more empirical approaches both need to be aware of the value of limited failure. We hypothesise about this complex world, test, examine the results, adapt and move on. W.E. Deming had nailed this years ago in his PDCA cycle. See an earlier article on this: Ever-Increasing Circles.
We need an empirical humility about what will happen if we do such-and-such, test and then see if we are right.
Maybe we need a CTF, a Call to Failure.
Marketers talk about the Call to Action, the CTA. Maybe we all need a CTF, a Call to Failure.
In my previous post, Advice from the TOP 30 Influencers in Project Management, I defended my choice around self-awareness.
One of my friends emailed me about this post, and how she had observed that her husband constantly stresses the importance of stakeholder management. She wrote:
The Human Factor that is so often the key to success or failure and maybe even sabotage ( for the passive aggressive) in projects and organisations. I have seen academically brilliant people appointed into very senior positions and their own insecurities and lack of emotional intelligence have done untold damage to an organisation .
This prompted me to check this diagram:
Look at the description on the bottom line of this diagram, where a self-awareness impacts the behaviour of Leaning to People. Is it merely an increased ability to identify key relationships? No. I realise it is much more than that.
Quite by chance, I was reading Danny Silk’s brilliant Keep Your Love On yesterday morning. In it he writes:
When you don’t have either the courage or the ability to face the truth of what feel, think, and need, you end up communicating confusing and inaccurate information – sometimes even downright falsehoods.
- If you never really learn to value and understand what’s going on inside you, how can you value and understand what is going on with another person?
- If you don’t know yourself, how can you get to know another person – someone with a completely different experience and perspective – and value the truth of who they are?
page 82, Keep Your Love On: Connection, Communication & Boundaries, Danny Silk (2013, lovingonpurpose.com)
In recent years, I’ve majored on the critical nature of Stakeholder Engagement. In 2013 I wrote Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships. Project management has long marginalised the topic of “stakeholder management,” as they call it. (As if you can truly manage anyone other than yourself.) ‘Leaning to People’ is a central narrative in that book. I’m proud that this book was later adopted as the core reference for an international qualification in stakeholder engagement. I hope it is doing some good to the profession.
This last year I’ve turned to the other three behaviours that distinguish outstanding performance, in my latest book: Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out. Outstanding performance all starts, though, with self-awareness.
So, I’m inclined to re-draw the diagram, now, in the light of my friend and Danny Silk’s observations to something like this:
Can you spot the crucial difference?[reminder]What are your thoughts on this?[/reminder]
This week I was sent a report containing Advice from the 30 TOP influencers in project management. If you are not involved in project management professionally, I can quite understand that this will not set your heart racing! However, it is interesting to see the patterns that emerge from these ‘TOP influencers.’
(Full disclosure: I was chosen as one of the 30. The authors asked me and the other 29 contributors to give our take on what was our top tip.)
Much of this so-called ‘top’ advice focuses on planning and re-planning. Important though planning is, it is nowhere near the top thing for me.
Many others get rather nearer the mark, in my opinion, and focus on stakeholder engagement and developing key relationships. See my own work on this.
However, I suggest – with apologies to JRR Tolkien – that there is one thing to rule them all:
developing your self-awareness.
Now, I recognise that to many people my choice might look pretty abstract and dull. Maybe even a little surprising. “Is that it??! Self-awareness. That feels very psychological and not very practical. What about the Time-Cost-Scope Triangle. What about the Critical Path?”
[shareable]Thinking about your thinking – self-awareness – is the key to driving all other habits that bring success.[/shareable]
Let me explain. The research I did a few years ago with my colleague John Edmonds revealed that self-awareness was key to high performance: high performing programme and project managers all exhibited a high degree of self-awareness, of mental clarity about their own thought processes. They all think about their thinking. Self-awareness drives all the other behaviours that give the high-performer real traction in the complex world of project management: behaviours like building and protecting personal margins, leaning to action, and leaning to people. See this diagram:
So how do we all develop self-awareness in our work? I show you how in my new book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out. I have since come to believe that this kind of high-performance is not for the exalted few, any of us can develop the right habits to get exceptional results.
[reminder]How do you think about your thinking?[/reminder]