Learning from experience

When starting a project, and during its lifecycle, industry best practice project management methodologies and common sense advocate the need learn from previous experience. Sometimes default thinking, taking a glass half empty approach, involves identifying previous project failures within an organisation to hopefully learn from or project failures from other organisations to avoid the same pitfalls. What’s often forgotten is to focus and learn from previous successes. While learning from previous failures provides insights into those project management principles, themes, processes and behaviours that the organisation should hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes, it’s easier for projects to replicate those things that work well or need minimal changes to improve (e.g. the low hanging fruit).

No doubt it’s infinitely more difficult to redress project failure if the environmental context and landscape continually changes, particularly through digital disruption. The project environment represents those interrelationships where the project is managed. It is the interactions involving operational, physical, ecological, social, cultural, economic, psychological, financial and organisational elements to name a few. These factors indelibly affect the project conditions. It’s all these factors combined that make every project unique. 

Ultimately it’s the skill and capability of the project manager role, with the support of a Portfolio, Programme and/or Project Management Office, to navigate these environmental conditions in the day-to-day management of the project in the delivery of the project benefits, prioritised spending objectives and the strategic drivers for the organisation. 

Unfortunately project failure continues to be one of the biggest concerns for organisations worldwide, despite best intentions with training and certifications in industry best practice, a proliferation of project management methodologies and Agile product delivery frameworks and governance processes through Gateway assurance to identify potential risk threats before they eventuate.

One element that is often ignored is the organisational need to have the right people, with the right skills, experience, capabilities, mindset, personality type and expertise on the right project, at the right time. Projects by their very nature introduce change, organisations need to focus not only on the stakeholders being affected by the change but also the capabilities of those directing, managing and delivering that change. After all the proposed vision for the organisation may not be the same as your stakeholders so it’s important to have the right people, take the right measured approach and bring stakeholders along the business change journey. 

Project failure can be best described as a state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended investment objective. If a benefit is the measurable improvement, from change, which is perceived as positive by one or more stakeholders and contributes to organisational (including strategic) objectives, Then based on these parameters, it becomes infinitely clear why project failure is so prevalent. Particularly when at an organisational level, success means a clear line of sight between strategic intent and the delivery of financial and quantifiable benefits. 

To help alleviate this, organisations need to take a glass half full approach to focus and actively promote those proven project management principles, themes, processes and behaviours that enable successful project delivery. These project management aspects should be defined and replicated habitually across the organisation until someone can challenge that aspect with an improved approach but until then everyone consciously agrees to uphold the existing good project management practices.

Albert Einstein may have eloquently stated that “the only source of knowledge is experience”, but to improve the successful delivery of future projects, it’s better to focus and embed those project management principles, themes, processes and behaviours that enabled the successful delivery of the project benefits, prioritised spending objectives and the strategic drivers for the organisation. While failing fast, and often, has its merits from an organisational perspective particularly in pursuit of a minimal viable product (defined as the maximum level of validated learning with the least amount of effort). 

So when learning from experience, it’s important for organisations to initially analyse the project successes but later on the project failures, keeping in mind changes to the environmental conditions. When people, projects and organisations fail, there is always a natural inclination to assess why? To look at what went wrong and where things did not transpire as intended. When there is success however there is a tendency to forget this step and just celebrate!


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