Planning for Project Success: Learning from Experience

January 8, 2014

project success by learning from experience

Success: Part strategy, part people, part methodology, and some luck thrown in for good measure. Considering we have no control over luck, let’s focus on the first three elements. To have a serious conversation about project success there must be a quick analysis of failure.  It is the yard stick for success. Failures set the bar for success through learning from experience.

Learn from Experience Starting with the “Dark Side”

No one ever wants their project to be on the “dark side.”  It occurs frequently enough, though, that it is unwise to ignore the possibility.  By understanding the major factors contributing to a troubled project, you can chart a course to avoid it.

Success is illusive to the optimistic.  Dreams alone never build a road to tranquility. Neither will gloomy pessimism. One must remain realistic about the team’s capabilities and its probability for success. Reflect on the number of times projects have become failures overnight. They never really do. As so aptly put by Frederick Brookes in his book The Mythical Man-Month, “How does a project get to be a year late? …One day at a time.” The warning signs are posted at regular intervals along the road. An hour here, an hour there. A small addition here, a small addition there. Each one adds incremental slips to the project’s deadline… and the faint ring of a cash register.  Without the leaders watching the mileposts and resisting the comforting soliloquy of the optimist, the project is doomed.

Reading carefully you are quick to see that the issue is neither being late nor over budget, but rather failing to pay attention to the warning signs. This is a leadership problem.  The instantaneous failure happens and you are left to search for quick answers and scramble the troops. Along with rallying the troops you also call in a couple other people who have helped in similar messes.

This has happen before? Surely not you, but a colleague. Regardless, the firefighters respond to the alarm and work to extinguish the flames. Herein lays the problem—our culture thrives on bad news. The realist who was reporting the issues was cast as a whining, niggling pessimistic, when they were actually the voice of reason. The realistic is demotivated and the firefighter exalted.

The Real Problem

As much as you may hate to admit it, the problem is at the top. Most projects do not fail due to some cataclysmic issue.  More commonly the goals are too ambitious, the timeline unrealistically short, or the funding too conservative. Granted, earthquakes and fires happen, subcontractors go bankrupt, and major technical impediments arise, but more often than not there were dozens or hundreds of issues that sealed the project’s fate. Leadership needs to address this. They created the vision, they set the strategy, and they are the only ones who may reset the goals.

An inordinate number of companies with a history of troubled projects fail to align their projects to their current strategy, if they even have a written strategy. The reasons are many—mergers, a rapidly changing business climate, young companies chasing the next sale, growing companies outstripping their goals, and the list goes on. The fact is that without written goals you have no way to gauge whether projects are headed on the right course.  The project’s scope wanders unbridled and its costs increase as there is no real learning from experience.  More projects are started to meet new goals resulting in more work and not enough resources.

How Much Is Too Much

Realistically, few companies can handle more than three initiatives. Not only do they lack the financial resources but they are also lacking the skills. At the highest level the problems stem from the basic principle that the people who run projects and build new capabilities have a different mindset than the people who operate them. Operations people prefer stability, they tune existing systems, they are risk intolerant, and they are averse to constant change. On the contrary, ideal project members thrive on change, the unknown, and are excited by risk. Move these people into their opposing role and they become uncomfortable and neither operations nor projects will succeed.  The result can be disastrous without learning from experience.

Getting Past the Symptoms

To get to success you have to understand the issues at hand by drilling down past the symptoms and looking for root causes—both on and off the project. Focusing solely on project execution will not solve the issue. Many of the problems are found in the strategy, the culture, the controls, and the people. The solutions are found in creating a nimble well-informed organization with clear and concise goals that morph in an orderly manner.

In the next article, the discussion will continue as to what a leader can do to properly lay the foundation for success and avoid issues.

For more business insights and strategies, sign up for our free management newsletter, Moving Ahead.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Develop your project management skills with these resources.

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:

Leave a Comment