03.07 20120

Turn Your Light On

If you could think of several characteristics of the ideal work environment, one that realizes the unlimited potential of its employees, what would the characteristics be?  In today’s competitive business environment, it takes innovation and creativity to be successful.  Innovation and creativity happen in an organization where members are bold and fearless, taking risks in an atmosphere of trust.  Would you be surprised if I told you that this environment of unlimited potential and success only could be created through failure?

It is not that failure should be promoted, but rather it is that people should know what to do with failure and how to turn failures into successes.  The best project leaders understand that failures are unavoidable.  The difference between organizational success and ultimate failure lies in the approach we take to “set-backs.”

I recently read the book, The 12 Pillars of Project Excellence, by Adil Dalal.  In his book, Dalal discusses the subject of learning from failures. In today’s corporate world, we often see failure as the opposite of success.  In projects, failure is not meeting scope, time, cost, quality, resource or risk baselines. Depending upon the organizational culture and the criticality of the project, a failure may be tolerated or lead to termination of an individual.

According to Dalal, there are three project failures:  system failure (organizational issues), process failure (methods issues), and human failure (human error issues).  Most project managers focus on human failure because it is the quickest and easiest way to deal with problems; however, investigating and “nailing a target” are not enough.  We must learn lessons from our mistakes so that we never repeat them if we are to move closer toward success.  Focusing only on human error has serious implications for organizational culture and success of organizations.

Dalal points out that with a human error approach when a failure occurs, a man-hunt is conducted for “who caused it,” and the focus is placed on punishment of the guilty and a quick-fix for the problem.  The “heads-will-roll” approach means that failures are generally reported to the project manager only after they occur and after damage has been done.  This approach leads to a culture of fear, distrust, and risk aversion, reducing creativity and innovation.  Team members blame each other and finger-point.  Team cohesiveness is impacted and performance problems occur due to a culture of negative attitude.  Team members become hesitant to take risks, fearing the ramifications.  The same failures happen again and again because the team and organization do not learn from mistakes.

Dalal remarks that great leaders and innovators see failure differently.  The best project leaders use failure as an opportunity to address root causes of the system, creating desire to understand so the whole organization can avoid similar results in the future.  They understand the human error often results from process or systems errors.  They focus on root-cause analysis to use failures as learning opportunity for the team and the organization.  They utilize problem solving through scientific methods, helping employees increase confidence in proactive problem solving.  They create an “open-learning” culture, promoting creativity and innovation.  They turn the stigma of failure into opportunity.

Dalal begins the “Learn from Failures” chapter of his book with a story about Thomas Edison.  Thomas Edison attempted to find a filament for the incandescent light bulb almost 1800 times before he succeeded.  Along the way, he was questioned about his lack of success, and he replied that he had gotten lots of results; he knew a thousand things that would not work.  His perspective made the difference; he gained knowledge from failure that eventually led him to unprecedented success.  Edison survived “failure” because he did not label it as such, but rather as a step toward achieving ultimate success.  We need to follow Edison’s example and “turn the light on” in our organizations by creating an environment where members learn from failure and use it as stepping stone to success.

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