Should Failure Be Part of Your Career Plan?

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Categories: Career Help

Failure is a hard word.

But we really can't know our limits if we don't sometimes test them.

So how do we reconcile the fact that we may "fail" sometimes and still be successful practitioners?

I can't say that every project I've ever managed has been a complete success. Not all of them have been delivered to full scope, on time and within budget. Nevertheless, I'm happy with my career and believe I'm a successful project manager.

Clearly, there's more to career success than simply stringing together a run of successful projects.  I don't know anyone who has done so. (And if I did, I would wonder if they might consider taking on a more challenging project next time.)

There's a component of success that has to do with achievement and pushing ourselves beyond personal limitations. Not everyone is so forgiving of our project failures, but we must see the failures in the context of personal growth and our overall career.

Career success is in the eye of the beholder.

Whether or not we consider ourselves successful has to do in part with how we react when our projects fall short of complete success.

 If we emerge from project failure smarter, wiser, stronger, better -- or just humbler from the experience -- we are prepared to achieve a greater level of success.

It's scary, but I think in the end we will judge ourselves more harshly if we don't explore and extend our limits than if we stay comfortably within them.

Net: Fail to succeed.

What do you think? Can failure eventually lend itself to career success?
Posted by Jim De Piante on: February 15, 2011 03:26 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Marco Falcão
Life is a series of ups and downs. Wise people learn from the failures and improve themselves. Only people who can stand the risk of doing things may fail. Challenges are also opportunities. Stumble and fall but be up again!

Luis Seabra Coelho
I agree with you. It doesn't matter what you think, the only thing it matters is what others think.

But there's another side to this. In my experience, people will notice your failures more than your successes, no matter how good your are at marketing them.

And so, to answer your question, yes - failure can lead to success as long as you learn from your failures. But you can't be learning all the time and at least you'll have to (i) provide an explanation for your failures that people can easily accept and (ii) make sure your successes are more visible than your failures.

Sergio Flores
Failure is definitely part of success. Getting back up when you get knocked down is part of the cycle in life, and also in our career as project management practitioners.

In projects, a major part of our responsibility is to manage and mitigate risk. By the nature of this definition, risk is inherent in every project, and it is impossible to completely do away with it. So there will be times when we fail at certain activities, certain aspects of the project, or maybe even have an overall project failure.

One of the activities that we must do in project management toward the end of each phase and each project is to conduct a thorough Lessons Learned to capture all those opportunities for improvement.

As Jim De Piante points out in this blog, taking this as an opportunity for personal growth is the best way to handle a failure in any aspect of life, whether it is a project failure or a failure in a personal matter.

One of my personal development mentors states, "To double your rate of success, you must double your rate of failure." In summary, treating failures as a means of growth and improvement is a much more constructive way of handling failures than the alternative, and being afraid of failure is something we must overcome to be considered successful.

David Bennett
Well I am not sure failure should be part of your plan - but certainly one should be prepared for the eventuality of it.

And one should be prepared to learn from failure - it's a great teacher if you are willing to put aside your ego and take a hard look at the facts of why a project, or you, failed to deliver.

Wendy Mason
Great post raising a really interesting issue!

Project failure is such a complex issue. Coming into time, cost and budget is overly simplistic! A project can 'go wrong' for many reasons - some of which are totally out of the PM's control, with others there may be a very limited opportunity to influence!

As a PM, I believe you need to decide for yourself, what you expect of yourself - be very realistic. Then, you decide whether you failed or succeeded. You can learn both from failure and success.

Where something is going wrong, you need to make sure your sponsor/s and your major stakeholders are kept well informed during the process and that the facts are clearly documented! And at the day, being human, PMs like everyone else sometimes just do get things wrong! You just have to get over it and do better next time!

Vito Madaio
Usually we work for success, not for failure, but sometime we have to manage failures. It is our life!

Not all failures depend on our behavior. Usually, if your company modifies its strategy, your must be prepared to let cancel or change your project.

The big question arises when high management is not capable to justify its political changes, cancels a project and charges the project manager of the failure, burning him with the project.

Often the high management is not transparent, so they prefer to invent reasons to cancel a project.

In similar cases, we are not the cause of failure, instead the sacrificial sheep. When a failure arise, sponsors are more responsible than Project Manager, please, don’t believe them.

Project failure can happen due to something out of our control like change strategy of the company, change market, etc. We need to accept that as a part of life.

Don’t make this create negative impact on our personal and professional life. Be optimistic and be ready to learn from failure.

Dinesh Premchandran
Nice article!

Failure is the stepping stone to success. Quite often the fear of failure makes you fail anyway! To me every project is unique and no matter what you do, something always goes wrong. Accepting failure and learning from it is the right way to go.

One may not achieve perfection, but must always strive for it.

Himanshu Bansal
This is a nice article. There are always chances of failure in every project. A project manager's job is to increase the chances of success and block the chances of failure. A PM may not always be successful because of internal and external factors.

Ivan Rivera, Pmp
Probably failure IS going to happen at least one time in our lives, so yes... we have to plan to deal with it.

As David and Sergio stated, we have to learn from failure.

But Luis also has a point. All stakeholders need to know that failure is an option. As Project Manager we must make them part of the management process so we all can prevent failure and we all learn if it happens.

William H Gutches
Every Project Manager has the opportunity and obligation to PUSH a project team and their capabilities closer to their limits than they might do on their own. When this PUSH succeeds, there are no big parties or celebrity interviews but when it begins to fall in on itself, then we have a real good chance of having those 'celebrity interviews' but they have the potential to be the kind we don't really want for ourselves.

When we see that a project of ours is moving away from its successfully planned track and towards a small or cataclysmic failure, our JOB is to find ways to pull these projects back from that brink and save what can be saved. Each of these little failures should be treated as a Lesson to be applied in Risk Mitigation to the remains of the current projects and any of our future ones.

IF, for some reason, the entire project fails AND we have been doing what we could to save some fragment of its value, and it still fails, then we have had a large number of Lessons to be applied to our next project(s).

Every attempt at recovering small failures and every failure at saving an overall project is an opportunity to learn why our project principles are important and how and how often they should be applied to each future project we have the opportunity to manage.


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