Learning from the past – how to assess project failures and learn from them

Lisa Regan

Past experiences can teach us valuable lessons that we can use to do things differently in the future. So if you don’t assess project failures and learn from the mistakes that you have made in the past, then you are destined to repeat them in the future.

Whether you take a training course or learn on the job, life in project management just as in any other role is all about learning skills and using those skills to improve outcomes. The key is to use the knowledge you have learnt in the past and build on it to improve the future.

How do you assess your failures?

When it comes to your failures, you shouldn’t get disheartened. Instead, see them as an opportunity to look at where you went wrong and consider what you could have done differently. Failure is not always a bad thing; learning from it is what can make you a better project manager. These do not have to be significant failures either; they can be little ones, or a series of small failures.

Take a look at what went wrong and work things backwards to find the point where things started to go downhill. Perhaps you made a snap decision, and that affected the timelines for the project? Maybe there was a lack of communication at a vital moment? Consider how things were going up until this particular point because if they were going well and the project was on target both in terms of the budget and any timescales then it wasn’t a complete failure.

How do you learn from your mistakes?

One of the skills required by project managers is the ability to be able to step back and assess your performance honestly and openly. You should make your process transparent and be accountable.

This is usually done by following the same standard process:

  1. Establish your goals and objectives, the success
    measures you will use the baseline and the approach
  2. Overcome those obstacles that may be in the way
    of you learning such as fear and blame
  3. Review your performance and document your
    failures and successes
  4. Analyse what they might have occurred
  5. Consider what you can do about the causes
  6. Do what is necessary
  7. Evaluate any results
  8. Repeat

It is important to avoid the “blame game”. This will get you nowhere and you need to remember that in fact nobody is perfect. If you cover up any poor performance that has occurred, then it is more likely to continue so discuss the mistakes and then use your analysis to work out how to move forwards.

Now is the time when those all-important communication skills need to come into play. Communication is the essential tool that will help you to pick apart what went wrong, how it went wrong and what you can take away from the experience so that you can avoid it happening in the future.

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