Fail Fast But Learn Faster

Insights | 03 May 2017

Springing back from mistakes is never easy, but it’s a required skill these days as business initiatives become increasingly globalised and ever more complex.

Peter Shergold AC, the noted academic, former public servant and current chancellor of Western Sydney University, has become an influential voice on this topic.

A Royal Commission created in 2013 tapped Shergold to conduct an independent analysis of how the Australian government implements large programmes and projects. His appointment came after a botched home insulation scheme cost taxpayers nearly $3 billion.[1]

While cantered on the public sector, the Shergold findings have broad applicability to private sector initiatives as well.

One overarching lesson in his oft-cited 2015 study[2] is that all organisations need to create a positive risk culture, where communication can be “frank and fearless” and lessons from failure are documented and retained.

Sweeping failures under the rug only risks future repetition.

“Contemplating the past,” Shergold writes, “I have discovered that I’m able to learn more from the failures I suffered as a public sector CEO than from the successes I enjoyed. Equally important, I have found that the public servants to whom I speak … prefer to hear about the failures … It helps people feel authorised to be more honest about their mistakes and — supported by colleagues — consider how best to make use of their experiences in the future.”

But this is not to say that stumbling around, botching project after project in the name of “good failure” is a desired state. Rather, governments, executives and project professionals need to reframe project and programme management as creative endeavours and not ones of control. Think of this as risk “engagement” vs. risk management.

Echoing these same concepts in a 2016 article, “Embracing Mistakes: Learning from Experience”[3], project experts Jon and Shawn P. Quigley reinforce that learning is the core of success here.

“If you find your project or organisation making the same set of mistakes, you have a learning problem,” they write. “To be sure, not all can be known; but if you are learning every day, more is known every day.”

The Quigleys also warn that attacking the “systemic problems” that contribute to project failure is not easy. “…[I]f looking at a single point of failure is painful, then looking for a trend must be even more exacerbating.” Know that avoidance is a powerful defensive tool for anyone and organisations are not immune.

So how can you introduce a better culture and outlook around learning from failure? Can you incorporate “risk engagement” into your practice of project or programme management?

Let’s go back to the Shergold report. Here’s more advice:

  • Preventing mistakes requires forward thought. You can’t simply rely on “evaluation and audit to identify problems after the event.” These are backward-looking and limiting.
  • High-risk, large-scale projects benefit from a “tiger team” that leverages expertise from across the organisation.
  • Government officials need to better understand the value of programme management skills and “recruitment practices should better recognise the strategic relationships between design, delivery and evaluation in order to promote more diverse experience among senior executives.”

Shergold also champions the idea of a Chief Risk Officer, a senior executive who can embed “a strong risk culture and behaviours across all levels of the organisation.”

It’s also critical to institutionalise what to do next after failure strikes, says Wrike, a U.S.-based company creating project management software applications. They recommend a four-step process[4] to help teams learn the most from failure:

  • Discuss the failure as a team.
  • Find the root causes together.
  • Minimise impact of the failure on the current project.
  • Codify lessons for the future.

In all, one cannot expect a team to take risks without any safeguards against “rushed, uninformed or poorly conceived decisions,” as Shergold writes. Such safeguards include “unambiguous rules of engagement and clarity” around responsibilities — a sound reminder no matter the industry or project.

Tell us: What systems or cultures around failure are part of your company or project team? How have these evolved over time?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enquire Now


1300 70 13 14


Stay Informed

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive quarterly industry news updates and stay informed of forthcoming PM-Partners group events.