Do You Have Excessive Fear of Failure?

Do You Have Excessive Fear of Failure? I participated in a discussion on LinkedIn this morning that stimulated my thinking. The individual who started the discussion asked the question, “If a pilot project is discontinued because it didn’t achieve results it had hoped for, would that be considered project failure?” The answer seemed obvious to me but it really stimulated my thinking – one of the key things that differentiates an Agile approach from atraditional plan-driven approach is the attitude towards failure:

  • In an Agile environment, a “failure” is regarded in a positive sense as an opportunity for learning and there’s a very popular mantra of “fail early, fail often”. In other words, sometimes you just have to try something and see what works and take a risk rather than being totally risk-averse and attempting to analyze and anticipate every possible risk and contingency before you even get started.
  • In a traditional, plan-driven environment, the attitude towards failure is many times very different. Any significant unexpected event might be regarded as a failure and many times is regarded negatively. There is an inference that it’s a failure in planning that you didn’t do enough upfront planning to anticipate the problem and avoid it.

I don’t think either of these two approaches is necessarily right or wrong. Like many things, it depends on the situation. There are some situations that call for a more risk-averse approach and some that don’t:

  • Some businesses have to operate on the “edge of chaos” because of a highly competitive business environment. If they were overly risk-averse and had excessive fear of failure, they would not be successful in their business and that would be a failure in itself to not do anything to “push the envelope”.
    Another saying I like is “If you’ve never failed, you’re not trying hard enough”. Amazon.com is probably a good example of a company that has a lot of failures like their smartphone, yet they continue to push the envelope to explore very risky new technology such as package delivery with drones because I’m sure that they feel that they need to continue to “push the envelope” to maintain their competitive position
  • In other environments, the consequences of problems may be much more significant and need to be more thoroughly anticipated and mitigated. Sending an astronaut to the moon might be an example. Check out the book, “Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond” for more on that
  • There’s also a lot of gray area between those extremes where it may require considerable judgment to figure out what the right approach should be. Any project that involves a large amount of uncertainty might be an example. You need to figure out how much of that uncertainty you can tolerate and let it be resolved as the project progresses and how much of it you can’t tolerate and need to resolve upfront before the project starts.
    It would probably be very irresponsible to take a cavalier approach and ignore the potential impact of risks; but, on the other hand, it could be equally problematic to get bogged down in “analysis paralysis” and never get started trying to anticipate and mitigate every possible risk that could possibly happen.

The most important thing is to have a clear mutual understanding and a sense of partnership between the project team and the project sponsor about what the goals of the project are, what level of risk is acceptable in the project, and how those risks will be managed.

  • In an Agile project, that’s typically easier to do because the relationship with the business sponsor is based on a spirit of trust and partnership as well as openness and transparency and the Business Sponsor (represented by the Product Owner) is expected to have a sufficient level of judgment and maturity to make good, sound decisions on the project. Because there is an understanding that some of the risks and uncertainties will be resolved while the project progresses, the Business Sponsor (represented by the Product Owner) is also intimately involved as the project progresses to provide ongoing direction
  • In many traditional, plan-driven environments, the business sponsors may not have that level of maturity and there may be less of a spirit of partnership with the project team. The Business Sponsors frequently put that responsibility totally on the project team to “just get it done” and don’t necessarily want to know about any risks at all. That can lead to a fear of failure and a “CYA” approach by the project team to over-analyze the project to avoid any possible problems and it can also lead to less-than-open sharing of project information to avoid airing any “dirty laundry” with the project sponsors.

It seems to me that the partnership approach where the business and the project team mutually agree on the project risks and how they will be managed is a lot more sensible and has numerous advantages.

2 thoughts on “Do You Have Excessive Fear of Failure?”

  1. Thought provoking …thanks! I think “get it done” is good if the sponsor sets priorities and empowers the team to commit and deliver in smaller pieces. Pressure to deliver is a given in business and teams get jazzed about being part of the company’s successful.

    The trouble comes when sponsors over commits, thrashes between priorities and then blames the team…yes?

    If so, how do you get sponsors to take responsibility for priorities, protecting the team and the ultimate business result?

    Do you agree that the challenge of lack of partnership transcends agile versus plan-driven project methodologies?

    1. You are correct – a spirit of trust and partnership between the team and the customer is absolutely critical. Without that; it would be very difficult, if not possible, to make an agile approach successful.

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