Moving on from Project Failures

I ran a Strategic Focus workshop with a group last month, and one of the participants alerted me to the most beautiful quote:

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”

The context for pulling out such a lovely quote was less than ideal. It was in response to something I see a lot: someone who kept bringing up historical grievances. This is common in teams of all sizes and, while it can be bloody tiring to those who want to just get on with it, it makes a lot of sense.

In this case, we had a frustrated politician, who felt misled about how feasible a work programme would be, and was wary of official’s advice after a significant investment hadn’t delivered the expected benefits. His unease made sense, as officials had not been upfront. Now, when it was time to decide how to move forward, we were stuck in the past.

This is a valuable and cautionary tale of how not to handle project failures.

History matters – but dwelling on it for too long makes it difficult to look to the future. It's a bit like driving. We don't get very far if all of our attention is focused on the rear-view mirror.

There is a right way to manage failure, which includes taking the time for productive reflection.The key is to process the grief and disappointment constructively.

Not too much time, though! Finding the line between reflection and rumination can be more art than science. One leads to adaptation, the other to obsession and mistrust. The key differences? The spirit of the discussion, and the focus on next steps.

Reflection is open, constructive and identifies areas to change. This requires openness and integrity, but can be trust-enhancing.

Rumination, on the other hand, sees us re-experiencing the mistakes and feelings associated with them, without taking corrective action. This is dangerous, and can be toxic.

Denial is at the other end of the spectrum, and is even less helpful. It may work for a period of time, but ultimately denial compounds the impact of failures, destroys the opportunity for learning, and breeds resentment. This is exactly what had happened in our example above, and the impact on future decision making is obvious. Change becomes viewed with suspicion, and discussions are continually dragged back to the past. Had officials been more proactive and open, this could have been avoided.

How to stop dwelling and look forward:

  • Take ownership - Trying to hide failure only breaks down trust.

  • Keep it professional – Failure is part of any good change process, not a personal failing. Stay focused on process and behaviour, and keep the character assassinations out of it.

  • Change something – Reflection is not enough. Trying something new keeps us learning and adapting.

  • Let it go – Reflection is great, obsession is toxic. Keep conversations focused on learning and looking to the future.