3 Words That Can Rescue a Failing Project: What Project Managers Can Learn from Mandela

July 1, 2014

Sometimes corporate culture can negatively influence a project’s fate. Todd Williams shares 3 words from the late Nelson Mandela that can help rescue a failing project.

As leaders, we have a lot to learn from the late Nelson Mandela. In the six months since his passing, I continue to reflect on one sage piece of advice—the search for ‘truth and reconciliation.’ There is huge significance in these three words. Too many of our corporate cultures have devolved into ‘blame and punishment.’  The minute something goes wrong on a project or in the company, we look for the person at fault and remove or demote them. I am not suggesting that any of us can convince our companies to adopt Mandela’s philosophy, although that thought is exciting.  I am suggesting we can change our personal culture in how we manage our people and project teams and reap the bounty. Juxtaposing these two management styles, we can imagine how our daily lives would change, how our project teams would be more motivated, and how our professional lives would grow in new directions.

Leadership is at the Core.

The difference is leadership. ‘Blame and punishment’ is about control. It demotivates teams, discourages innovation, and destroys morale. ‘Truth and reconciliation’ focuses on getting the right answer, rather than the desired answer, and people taking responsibility for their actions, rather than needing reprimand. Leaders paint the vision, provide direction, encourage self-direction, urge experimentation, tolerate failure, and celebrate success.

Advocacy Over Complacency: Advocacy destroys complacency.  Employees who blindly accept and comply with direction reduce the power of the team. Complacency stifles what you can gain from your team’s most innovative resources.  Promoting non-violent advocacy made Mandela, Gandhi, and King the leaders they were. It separated them from everyone else. Leaders who promote advocacy inspire people to drive positive change and embrace its uncertainty. It builds passion, creates excitement, ownership, and encourages people to stand up for their beliefs and visions. Leaders design ways for both the company and the employee to benefit from those visions.

Innovation Over Status Quo: Employees accepting status quo and avoiding anything new kills innovation. Stasis is easy; you do not need a degree in physics to know it takes energy to move. Innovation requires creativity, confidence, risk taking, and the acceptance of occasional failure. Inspiring innovation and investing in your team’s ideas helps your project achieve value. Leaders leveraging their team’s innovation reach their goals quicker and create a trusting culture.

Growth Over Stagnation: Stagnation—the unwillingness of your team to acknowledge the need for change. Growth and change takes energy, effort, and intention. Lessons from learning, gratification of growth, and achieving advancement produce long lasting rewards for you and your team—both professionally and personally. Team members who thrive are the basis for your project to flourish.

Increasing Profits Over Stalled Revenue: Empowered teams will grow, innovate, and advocate for what they think is right. The effect goes beyond your project.  They will do far more than raise revenue—they will bolster the bottom line.  Stagnation, status quo, and complacency may still increase receipts, but it will not improve the organization’s performance or provide an upturn in profit. Teams who embrace change, are willing to take chances, and continue to learn and grow will propel a company forward.

Reflect on Your Style

Look at your project’s culture. Do your teams fear retaliation, raise issues without offering solutions, or sidestep risk?  Now, reflect on how projects flourish when leaders ensure that team members have nothing to fear but their own limitations, have the freedom to propose innovative solutions, take personal risk, and respect one another. These teams build successful projects. These cultures change the world. It does not require leaders as strong as Nelson Mandela; it takes leaders like you who lead with your heart.


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About The Author

Todd C. Williams is the founder and president of eCameron, Inc. (, they help companies make their vision profitable. He has over 25 years of experience in recovering failing projects, preventing their failure, and applying those lessons to help other organizations fulfill their strategic goals. He has helped his clients through strategic planning facilitation, setting up and running operations, IT leadership, and as an expert witness. He is the author of Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure and can be found on LinkedIn (, Twitter (, Facebook ( ), by phone: +1 (360) 834-7361, or email:


  1. avatar

    […] The minute something goes wrong on a project or in the company we look for the person at fault and remove or demote them. Learn what 3 words from the late Nelson Mandela can change your company's culture and improve the success rate of your projects.  […]

  2. avatar

    Having just come off the back of a difficult customer multi-vendor project where ‘blame and punishment’ informed the culture, a project that will most likely not deliver its intended value and left vendors battered and bruised for wanting to help bring it home, this article tells it like it is.

    A previous customer project, where we were trusted to deliver and where our expertise, our innovation and abilities to work just as hard, but within a collaborative culture, turned a green-field site into a state-of-the-art manufacturing site in under six months and became a show-case of innovation and efficiency!

    I simply wish senior managers and C-level execs would get some interpersonal training how to create a trust culture. They’d get a lot more done, in less time, with less risk and better outcomes!

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