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Fear of Failure Can Cripple a Project

What’s the Impact of Fear of Failure?

What’s the impact of fear of failure on a typical project? Many people have a high level of fear of failure and do everything possible to avoid it; however, an excessive fear of failure can stifle the creativity and innovation that is often needed to maximize the business value of a project.

Impact of Fear of Failure

Here’s an interesting quote from MindTools on this subject:

“Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try it at all? Or has a fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a larger failure? “


How is the Attitude About Failure Different in Agile?

One of the key things that differentiates an Agile approach from a traditional plan-driven approach is the attitude towards failure:

Agile Environment

In an Agile environment,

  • A “failure” is seen in a positive sense as an opportunity for learning
  • 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. Being totally risk-averse and attempting to analyze and anticipate every possible risk and contingency before you even get started may not produce the best results.

Traditional Plan-driven Environment

In a traditional, plan-driven environment,

  • The attitude towards failure is many times very different
  • Any significant, unexpected event that occurs might be regarded as a failure and many times is regarded negatively
  • There is often an inference that you didn’t do enough upfront planning to anticipate the problem and avoid it

Risk Management – What’s the Right Approach?

The approach for risk management is directly related to fear of failure. I don’t think either the Agile or the plan-driven approach is necessarily right or wrong. It’s a question of how much risk is appropriate to accept and what’s the best way to manage it.

  • 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

The Edge of Chaos

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. 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 the smartphone they tried to develop
  • Yet they continue to push the envelope to explore very risky new technology such as package delivery with drones
  • I’m sure that they feel that they need to continue to “push the envelope” to maintain their competitive position

Other More Conservative Environments

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

The Gray Area

There’s 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 determine:

  • How much 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. However, 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 could easily stop progress.

What Level of Risk Is Acceptable?

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

Agile Projects

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. The Business Sponsor (represented by the Product Owner) should:

  • Have a sufficient level of judgment and maturity to make good, sound decisions on the project
  • Be intimately involved as the project progresses to provide ongoing direction

Traditional Plan-driven Projects

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:
    • It can cause 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

Overall Summary – The Impact of Fear of Failure

There is generally a direct relationship between risk and opportunity and completely avoiding risks due to the impact of fear of failure may lead to a very mediocre solution:

  • An Agile approach provides an excellent environment for taking calculated risks that may be necessary to maximize the value of the solution
  • In an Agile environment, a partnership approach where the business and the project team mutually agree on the project risks and how they will be managed is essential

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on “Agile Leadership”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

4 thoughts on “Fear of Failure Can Cripple a Project”

  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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