How to learn from failed project plans, and not repeat them


Brad Egeland

February 18, 2016

Recent news states that the DeLorean sports car – that unique vehicle that stopped production in 1982, is set to re-emerge on the general public in 2017 with 5,000 new units. The DeLorean caught everyone’s attention in 1985 as the time-traveling vehicle for Marty and Doc in the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy.

Gone will be the extremely underpowered original 160hp V6 engine in favor of a more practical – for a sports car – 350-400 hp V6 engine.  Other than that, everything else will be the same – mostly being assembled from the remaining inventory of parts left over from the original production plant.  With a price tag of $100,000, this car won’t be for everyone and it certainly won’t be gobbled up by the general public, but movie and auto enthusiasts will most undoubtedly love it.

Would making this car again for the general, non-collecting public in large quantities or stockpiling parts and inventory for thousands of future orders be a wise business move?  No.  Why?  There is a saying that goes something like this:  “Repeating past failures over and over again hoping for a different outcome is a sign of insanity.”  While that may or may not be true – the insanity part – it still isn’t generally good business.

Let’s move away from the DeLorean and on to more project management related activities.  I’ve been part of failed project management offices (PMOs) – three times in three years with one organization – where they were built on the same principles and plans as the last failed attempt…only to see them…guess what? Fail again! Really?  Imagine that.  Projects fail and fail and yet we often go back to the same actions that caused them to fail the last time around.  It’s time to stop…time to learn.

Think best practices.  What best practices actually are differ from project manager to project manager, from organization to organization, from customer to customer and even from project to project depending on timeline, budget and industry requirements.  But in general they are logical actions and practices that are hopefully repeatable and are practiced to give your project the best chance possible to succeed.  That means things like good team management, detailed task management, frequent budget oversight and reforecasting, efficient project communication, effective status reporting, and timely project customer engagement.  All things that help the project move productively forward.

Conduct lessons learned.  I’ve long said – and sometimes even practiced – that lessons learned are not just for the end of the project.  They are actually more helpful if you conduct them a couple of times in mid-project as well as once at the end.  Time them to take place when a major deliverable rolls out to the project customer or when a big milestone is reached on the project or a phase ends.  Pick a key stopping or resting point.  Discuss what’s going right and wrong at that point so that you can learn and take advantage of that info for better success on the current project AND the next project.  Win-win.  But you can also do that for other things – like the failure of a project management office…which in itself is a project of sorts, right?

Summary / call for input

What is your take on repeating failures hoping for different outcomes?  Is this you…or perhaps a colleague of yours?  It can be painful to watch if we never ever learn from our mistakes and failures.  What do you do to help ensure that you don’t repeat past failures?  Be honest…I know from surveys that I’ve personally conducted that most project managers and teams never conduct lessons learned sessions and I’m guilty of that as well.  Teams disperse, new projects get dumped in our laps and we are expected to hit the ground running.  So what do you do?  Please share and discuss.

This article was written by Brad Egeland from CIO and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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