Making mistakes is an inevitable part of project management. Whether it’s a bug-ridden deployment, a misjudged customer communication or a full-blown project collapse, the odds are we’ll all mess up at some point.
So, rather than waiting for the worst to happen, we might as well prepare ourselves to make mistakes. To help, here’s a four-step guide to help you make mistakes the right way and boost your chances of turning a negative situation into a positive one.
1. Promote a mistake-safe culture
Like many things in project management, your environment defines your chances of success. When making mistakes, it’s best to work within a culture that acknowledges and accepts them.
Astonishingly, a joint PMI and PwC study found that only 18% of organisations actively promote psychological safety around mistakes and failure. If your organisation isn’t one of the 18%, I’d recommend promoting a mistake-safe culture at a project or programme team level.
As your team comes together, openly discuss the very high chance of you all making mistakes. Many teams even agree behaviours, values and response plans as part of their project charters to address what to do when something goes wrong.
To help drive this mistake-safe culture, as a project leader, don’t be afraid to be open and transparent about mistakes you’ve made in the past. Not only will it help you be better at making mistakes, but it also helps build trust, compassion and camaraderie across the team.
2. Run project pre-mortems
Now that you’re comfortable with the culture, it’s time to get one step ahead and plan your future mistake. But how do you do this? Reviewing lessons learned from similar projects is the textbook answer here — but let’s consider something different.
A project pre-mortem is essentially the opposite of a post-mortem. During the planning phase, get the team together to actively consider how your project could fail. From there, you can:
- Work backwards to understand the risks, issues and mistakes that may cause failure.
- Consider what you could do to avoid those failures completely.
- Or if those risks, issues or mistakes can’t be avoided, consider what you could do to reduce their impact.
While a pre-mortem isn’t fool-proof, it does help identify potential mistakes and plan high-level mitigations before they strike.
3. Mistakes = learning opportunities
The inevitable has happened and someone has made a mistake on your project. Your stakeholders are annoyed, you’re over budget and your timeline’s delayed. Now what? Once you’ve finished fire-fighting (eg putting your pre-mortem plans into action), it’s time to learn and move on by reframing the mistake as an excellent opportunity to improve for the future.
Of course, you’ll take responsibility for the mistake's impact first, but then, you must dust yourself off, build resilience, and push forward. If you dwell on the situation, you’re in danger of making even more mistakes as post-error slowdown and confirmation bias take over.
In short, what’s done is done — take responsibility, learn from it and move on quickly.
4. Tell all your friends about the mistakes you made
What do we all do when we get good at something? We show off to our friends, of course.
To finish, I’d challenge you to stop being so selfish! If you genuinely care about your colleagues and want them to make better mistakes, too, it’s only right that you share your experiences with them.
To do this, you must go beyond simply storing your lessons learned document on the PPM tool and schedule time to share your mistakes (and how you overcame them) with your fellow project professionals.
The best application of this I’ve seen was a PMO team mandating that, within three months of closing, every project had to host a lessons-learned playback session for the whole practice.
Not only did this help others steer clear of common mistakes, but it strengthened that mistake-safe culture, reinforced that mistakes can also be great learning opportunities and encouraged others to think about the mistakes they’ll make in the future.
Making mistakes is an inevitable part of project management. So, whether through a mistake-safe culture, re-framing our failures or sharing our mistakes with colleagues, there are many ways to become great mistake-makers and turn a negative situation into a positive one.
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