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Failure happens to all of us. Here’s how you can learn from it

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Project failure is not an easy subject to think about, but the more we face up to it, the better prepared we will be to succeed. First things first: we all mess up. What differentiates us is how we learn from failure and use it to grow, becoming braver and stronger in the process.  

My experience comes from leading many projects and programmes, from setting up new IT in investment banks to creating a charity to feed hungry schoolchildren here in the UK. Now working with tech firms to scale up, I urge project leaders to move forward by taking action in line with values, even when that goes outside our comfort zone.   

Why do projects fail?  

In 2015, consultancy firm McKinsey found that only 30% of big change initiatives succeeded. My, perhaps controversial, suggestion is that management itself might be the cause of a ton of failure.  

Management speak is itself a hiding place, in my experience. We don’t fail, we reschedule deliverables, reset milestones, pivot, refresh. So frank assessment and simple honesty might help turn things around at an earlier stage before the team have to look failure in the eye.  

How about: “Yep, team, I have to talk to you. I got this majorly wrong. Maybe I wasn’t keen on listening, maybe I had a glorious certainty beyond feedback. But here we all are, resetting, rescheduling. And I just want to put my hands up. I failed. I’m sorry.”  

Have you ever been in a review meeting when things are just off, wishing some big-hearted leader would own the misfire? It’s so hard to do when the project success is a personal identity win and when approval matters as much as getting the system working.  

When I set the wrong course 

That was exactly where I went wrong on a big change programme a few years ago. I wanted to win so much for me, that I just didn’t take on vital feedback.  

I was hired by one of the biggest film studios to integrate its end-to-end processes, from the acting talent and writers at the front to stream distribution at the finish. I had all 10 national CEOs lined up. I put the purpose first: to create the world’s most entertaining content; to become the studio everyone wanted to be part of. 

It went really well at the start. I put the problem statement clearly, established a sense of urgency, got the board behind me. I invited lots of views from across the organisation: why do we have to change and why?  

Following my passion-purpose-plan model, I asked, what are we most passionate about? How do we align our passion, purpose and plan with our audiences?  

We had a change plan, we had momentum. So my plan was to get the board together to sign it all off. There was just one problem — I had one board member who just didn’t want to be part of it.  

I tried, but I thought one leader out of play doesn’t matter. The board members asked me to make sure he was there and wanted the same outcomes. My denial game was strong. I was brimming with confidence. That board meeting showed me how wrong I had been.  

The national CEO whom I had missed entirely showed up with his own consultancy firm and his own findings. I sat and listened with my heart pounding. Fortunately, the majority view prevailed, and we found a way to use the best of both plans, mine and his.  

I made sure the CEO felt entirely listened to and in the right. He did not appreciate some unknown person, not from the industry, pushing the agenda. That was me. And I had failed to work that out. It could have blown the whole project out of the water. He had so much experience and status compared to me.  

Each voice matters 

My big mistake? Being so immersed in the great togetherness of the team and sense of progress that I missed the warning signs. Big lesson: get everyone on board. Each voice matters, no matter if there is a big vocal majority saying ‘go’. And one big reason for that failure was my ego. 

The takeaway from that experience was to go humbly back to my activist learning. How did Nelson Mandela change the course of history? How did the bravery and self-effacement of Rosa Parks create the bedrock for civil rights protests that brought in a new era of US society? Activists are great role models for those of us who want to be change makers. I just got caught up in my own PR and ignored that fact.  

I could have said to that CEO: please join in, because we want to transform this firm for the better for every single person who ever buys a ticket to their local cinema. Instead, I wrote: please join in because my initiative is well underway and we want your contribution too. See the difference? 

Three tips on how to fail well 

I have tried to learn from great managers and great activists — and found activist leaders are more likely to succeed. Here are my top three tips on how to fail well. 

  1. Make sure you have a big enough ‘why’. Is this project good for the planet and people as well as shareholders and buyers? See this project through an activist lens.  
  2. Have you done a pre-mortem? Start by working out why the project will fail. Ask everyone to contribute and make sure every issue is sorted. Feedback on why things could go wrong is gold dust.  
  3. Keep passion, purpose and plan moving with equal volume. What do we care most about? What do our stakeholders care most about? What is the big ‘why’? Is that the same as last week? Is it the same with a new board?  

Passion, purpose, plan. Get your applause along the way, but make sure it’s not the destination.  


Listen to APM Podcast’s interview with Carmel McConnell on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. 


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