OK, with a heading like that, maybe you think I’m ever so slightly insane, but with all due apologies to Benjamin Franklin, nothing can be said to be certain in this life except death, taxes and failure. Anyone who says they haven’t failed is lying through their dentures and more than that, they’re too scared to tell the truth.
Recruiters love admissions of failure
Admitting to failure isn’t quite as shameful as it used to be. Recruiters like it (so long as you don’t overdo it!) and tend not to trust someone who says they’ve never had a failure, plus everyone loves to hear how you’ve learned from your mistakes. However not many are prepared to tread the dangerous path of detailing every facet of their unbelievably poor judgement….call me stupid (you will after reading this article!) but I’m going to do just that.
I’m going to show you mine in the hope that and maybe you’ll show me yours, so feel free to reply to the post.
Project managers have regular opportunities to fail!
I’m a project manager, so the opportunity to fail comes often and regularly, in fact as a project manager, you’ve barely seen one failure out before getting the opportunity to repeat it. That’s always assuming that your boss hasn’t already suggested that maybe you’d like to go forth and fail for someone else.
First we got the bid wrong!
Many years back, I’d just joined a small software house from a bigger one and was thrown almost immediately into pulling together a bid for a customer in the north of England. The bid process didn’t really work in the way as it had at the larger software house. There, we’d trawl around the hundreds of available staff and pick a crack team to work on the response to a request for tender. In the new company, you just got whoever was available….not good, as it turned out. So lesson No 1 is don’t bid for something you don’t know anything about …..kind of obvious you might think! And of course lesson No 2 is, no matter how new you are at a company, if it doesn’t feel right, tell them….you’re far more likely to get fired by towing the line than by throwing in your opinions.
Somehow, we managed to overlook the risks inherent in this and ploughed on with our bid. Lesson No 3 being, if you don’t understand the risks, you’re almost certainly stuffed whatever you do!
OMG…then we won the tender!
You think this is bad…..it gets worse! We actually won the work. The other tenderers, it would seem, actually knew what they were doing and put in sensible quotes. And guess what….lesson no 4 has arrived, but this one is for the company tendering the work. If it’s too good to be true….it really is too good to be true. They should have thrown our proposal into the garbage bin….but they just couldn’t resist the lure of our very unrealistic price!
This made our board very happy, lots of pats on the back for such a clever new employee. That changed before too long!
There was still a way out, but with supreme skill (not to mention ineptitude) we even managed to miss that opportunity!
Then messed up the specification
The first part of the project was a specification phase carried out on a time and materials contract, at the end of which we would be expected to firm up our fixed price. Now as I said, this was a small software house, with a very high utilisation of staff. So another motley crew of cast off analysts, whose only real plus point was that they were available, turned up to write the specification. Now I’d like to blame them entirely for the next bit, but sadly I can’t.
The spec was written, the estimates revisited and reconfirmed….we fixed the price and we were wrong by a factor of about 3! Of course the customer knew it, but thought in some perverse way that they were getting a bargain. When we eventually delivered, twelve months late, causing them huge amounts of angst and tying down large numbers of their staff, this didn’t look so much of a bargain. Another lesson – No 5 – gift horses often turn out to be dead donkeys – if you know it’s wrong, don’t go along with it.
….And couldn’t staff it
If you’re starting to think that it couldn’t get any worse, then you’d be wrong. The project involved modifications to COBOL mainframe code, so now I needed a team of 10 COBOL programmers.
It turns out that we didn’t have many of those. So I managed to scrape together three who knew COBOL and the rest to be trained in it….so 70% trainees on a project that was already underestimated….disaster! I don’t think I have to spell the lesson out on this one!
Appointed a project leader with no experience
By now, you must be starting to think that I’m making this up, but even worse was to come. The way this software house worked was to have a project manager (me) interface with the customer and oversee the whole project, negotiate contracts, arrange staffing etc. and a project leader on the ground to do the hands-on project management. And the project leader, I was given? You guessed it, he had no project management experience whatever and turned out to be completely unsuited to the role.
OK, in case you’re losing track, I’ll summarise. Under-priced, poorly specified, hardly any staff with the right skills, a project manager who had never run a project before and a blatant ignorance of risk. Impressive eh?
…then I got promoted when it all went wrong ???
The results were predictable….well sort of. The project eventually got delivered, hugely over budget and about 12 months late. People were dragged off lots of other projects to try to sort out the mess, it made a massive loss……oh, and I got promoted. Odd the last one, I agree, but then 20 years later, no longer a callow youth, I ran a massive programme of work for one of the world’s largest 100 companies, with a project staff of around 150 over 2 years. I delivered it fault free, on time and on budget and got demoted…..life makes you wonder sometimes.
Failing is good (honest!)
‘In every failure lies the seeds of success’ according to Deepak Chopra, and the really good news is that according to psychology research, the brain likes the experience of learning from mistakes and gives you a good feeling when you apply that learning. So there you go! Failing isn’t bad…it’s good (eventually!).
Go on …..show me yours!
I’d be really interested in your agony too – can you match my biggest disaster, or maybe do even better? (or should that be worse?). Why not bare your soul and tell it all, you’ll feel so much better for getting it out – just reply to this post.
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Gren Gale is a consultant specialising in Project Management and Procurement and is owner of PM Results