Project Management

The Agony of Defeat?

From the Strategic Project Management Blog
As an "accidental" project manager, it's very satisfying to contribute to the project management community online with anecdotes and stories I've picked up from my own experience. I hope you enjoy our daily conversation.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Tell Me You're Going to Get This Done

Quiting Isn't Easy if You Never Do It

Getting in the Way of Peak Performance

The Agony of Defeat?

Nobody Likes Being the Heavy


decision-making, empowering team members, project leadership, project management, project management fundamentals, project success, project teams, struggling projects, work management


Like most everyone I know, I spent my Sunday afternoon watching the Olympics. I was a swimmer in high school and like most people in the U.S., I've been watching Michael Phelps and the U.S. Swim Team. On Sunday night, I watched the men's relay team's loss to France. It was an exciting race, but it was the way the team seemed to handle the loss that impressed me the most. Sure they were disappointed, but they were also upbeat. "We're all young, we'll be back."

That might not be his exact words, but I liked the sentiment. Setbacks are tough—particularly when they happen in crunch time. But like the Olympics, projects sometimes have those same setbacks. How we deal with them is more important than that they happen—because they will happen.

In a conversation I once had with a leading Gartner analyst, she said something like, "Projects are messy things. That's why we call them projects."

We were talking about risk and how projects always include some level of risk. The problem in many organizations today is that they are so risk averse that most ambitious projects are doomed before they even start. It's as if there's this unwritten code that suggests, "Yeah, we know this is a risky project, but we need to do it. Don't make any mistakes. This needs to come off without a hitch. No excuses."

Nobody can do their best work with a gun to their head (and that includes project teams).

I'm not suggesting that we ignore risks, but I am suggesting that they are a part of life that should be looked at honestly. In my opinion, risk mitigation isn't risk elimination. It's about looking at potential problems and planning on an action plan if things go wrong. And, I'm convinced that they often do—business leaders just don't like to talk much about it.

Most successful project leaders I know work hard to ensure that risk is identified, quantified, and accomodated within their project plan. They know that when things sometimes go wrong, the sky is not falling, it's simply time to regroup. Some of them even have business leaders who get that, unfortunately there are many that do not.

There is no easy answer for project managers who need to educate management about risk, how it is inherently part of project-based initiatives, and how to deal with problems when they arise. It takes time and repetition. However, the U.S. Men's Swim Team is a great example. "We're all young, we'll be back."

What are you doing to educate your organization about the risks associated with your projects? How do you plan to deal with the problems that will inevitably crop up?

Posted on: July 31, 2012 08:52 AM | Permalink

Comments (6)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item
Karen Fox Project Manager| Retired Forest Hills, Ny, USA
Regardless of whether or not you are able to plan for risk, I think it is important to do what the athletes do. As much as they train, it is ineveitable that at some point they are going to lose because on a given day there just may be someone who is better. The athlete will sit with their coach and reassess their performance and make adjustments going forward. We as project managers can learn from this. If something goes wrong on a project, don't be defeatist. But, review what was done and how it can be done better. You learn from your mistakes.

Ty Kiisel Manager Social Outreach| AtTask Lehi, Ut, USA
Great comments Karen. We should learn from mistakes, prepare for next time, and come back with a vengeance. Beating each other up about them does nobody any good.

Vincent Fong Program Consultant| WorkAware Sydney, Nsw, Australia
If one is to dive into a pond in a serene but unfamiliar landscape, it is natural that one would initially be skeptical, then curious before being inclined or disinclined to do it. It is normal that should one be inclined to make the plunge one would do a quick scan of the environment, learn the depth of the pond and what's in it.

Risk as mentioned is not readily eliminated, hence we mitigate against it (reduce it's impact) if it should become real. In the same way, before plunging head long into a project, the organisation would have / should have prepared a business case and within it identified and documented some of the risks (not all - just the most likely or key ones) and have at least a high level contingency plan with clearly defined roles and risks actions so that in the event that risks do materialise there is not a mad scramble to action. Some would call this due diligence, I think we can call it common sense.

Mahalmadane Touré Engineer| National Headquarters of Geology and Mines of Mali (Bamako) Mali
Excellent work, your article is instructive and funny so I like it.

Aejaz Shaikh PM I| Alyx Technologies India Pvt Ltd Pune, Maharshatra, India
Good article. To learn from defeat and overcome the mistakes will pave path for future victories.

Luis Branco CEO| Business Insight, Consultores de Gestão, Ldª Carcavelos, Lisboa, Portugal
Dear Al
Interesting is your reflection on the topic: "The Agony of Defeat?"

Thanks for sharing

Important point to remember:

"Setbacks are tough — particularly when they happen in crunch time. But the projects sometimes have those same setbacks. How we deal with them is more important than that they happen — because they will happen"

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity there ain't nothing can beat teamwork."

- Mark Twain