Lack of Failure is Not Success


When I teach project management, I teach people to know what success means, and to know what done means (release criteria). One of my students recently emailed me:

At work recently, we've come upon a scenario where we have no success criteria (or more accurately, success criteria that we can measure in any way). We do have fairly clear failure criteria. Our only measurable success criterion will be a continuing absence of failure.

Well, that's a project that has little chance of ending.

Knowing you haven't failed is not the same as succeeding. I use success criteria to manage the tradeoffs during a project and release criteria to evaluate progress towards done-ness, so we can get to a successful project.

3 Replies to “Lack of Failure is Not Success”

  1. So true.
    My last job was like that. The design group loved failures because they taught us so much. The faster we made a prototype fail, the faster we could start working on making it better.
    During my three years as a project manager there, we designed more innovative products than the company had in its fifty-year history. (All of the products we developed that are now on the market are doing VERY well.)
    Unfortunately, no matter how many times we explained the theory of “fail often to succeed faster” to “management”, they still viewed every “planned” failure as a black eye for the project. It got to be so disheartening that the entire design engineering department ended up quitting, as did I.

  2. I wonder if part of the problem is the word ‘failure’ itself. Is it really ‘failure’ when things don’t work out exactly as anticipated? It can be seen as an opportunity to learn and enhance both personal and organizational knowledge. When managers are in the habit of thinking dualistically about success and failure, they’re likely to be frightened when they hear people talking about ‘planned failure’.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.