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Volume 15, Issue 2;   January 14, 2015: Avoid Having to Reframe Failure

Avoid Having to Reframe Failure

by

Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
Panama Canal construction

Construction on the Third Set of Locks Project of the Panama Canal. The new locks, due to begin operation in 2016, will allow for ships approximately 50% wider to pass through the canal. The existing canal and locks began operating in 1914. They were constructed by the United States, following the failure of a French effort that began in 1881. The French had attempted to build a sea-level canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The U.S. approach was to construct an artificial lake 85 feet above sea level, with locks at both ends connecting it to the two oceans. Although the U.S. project used a much different approach and design, it did employ, repair, and upgrade some of the infrastructure created by the French. And, of course, the U.S. effort benefitted from the knowledge that the French sea-level design proved too difficult. Photo courtesy U.S. Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects.

Asked about his repeated failure to devise an electric light, Thomas Edison supposedly said something like this: "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work." There are disputes about the exact phrasing he used, but the gist of his message is clear: there is some value in failure.

Although his claim is valid, Edison certainly didn't set out to find those 10,000 ways that don't work. That's why his comment is somewhat humorous.

It's an example of reframing — the process of altering how we view concepts, situations, conditions, or events, usually by changing how we view the importance of contextual elements. In the example above, Edison emphasizes the often-ignored value of knowing which candidate solutions don't work.

Although reframing is helpful when we fail, succeeding is even better. Here are three tips for avoiding the need to reframe failure.

Design the approach to yield value independent of outcome
Although all efforts have (or should have) primary objectives, we can sometimes design our efforts so that failure to achieve the primary objective inherently contributes to a different success. For example, if Approach A fails, but Approach B can use much of the knowledge or infrastructure generated by having attempted A, then the failure of A leaves us in good position for B.
Intentionally interlocking solution approaches in this manner might require attempting a less-favored approach first, but the risk management benefits of inverted order can be attractive enough to make inversion sensible.
Define multiple objectives
Defining multiple objectives from the outset creates multiple opportunities for success, even if some objectives are more important than others. For example, in a proposal effort, winning the contract is the obvious primary objective. But making the cut to the final short list might also be an achievement, if we're employing process improvements and simultaneously studying their effects on proposal efforts.
Having multiple Although reframing is
helpful when we fail,
succeeding is
even better
objectives generates value even if the primary objective isn't realized. Articulating them in advance makes reframing an undesirable primary outcome less necessary, because success in achieving the secondary objectives is so evident.
Shorten the goal horizon
Primary objectives that are achievable only after large-scale investments of resources and time tend to be less certain, because predicting outcomes of complex activities over long time scales is difficult. And with elevated levels of uncertainty come decreased probabilities of success.
By setting objectives that are achievable on shorter time scales, adjustments for unforeseen events, based on what we learn along the way, become more achievable. The learning then becomes part of the outcome, which is a success in itself. And we can apply that learning to the next set of shorter-range objectives.

All three of these tactics make available options that teams might not otherwise notice. What options have so far escaped your notice? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Limits of Status Reports: I  Next Issue

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One often-neglected project risk is the risk of inaccurately reported status. That shouldn't be surprising, because we often fail to report the status of the project's risks, as well. What can we do to better manage status risk and risk status?
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Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
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See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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