Balancing failure

I’ve often thought that the role of the manager is to balance opposites. One of those balances I’ve been pondering recently is between ensuring the success of a project and giving people the opportunity to learn from failure.

With the benefit of experience, I can see where projects are going wrong, where teams have gaps in their thinking, where processes are creating unintended consequences. But I only have that knowledge and experience because others have let me fail and learn from it.

So, how to approach the balancing between projects succeeding in the short-term and people succeeding in the long-term?

Let’s start at the extremes.

Focusing only on the success of the project would see managers taking a more directive role, telling people what to do, and so preventing any learning that means those people can lead successful projects in the future. We don’t want that.

Focusing only on giving people learning opportunities means managers accepting lots of failure. Project success is important. It brings opportunities. If every project fails, pretty quickly new projects don’t get started, and those learning opportunities are lost. We don’t want that either.

Where’s the balance?

Maybe it’s in the practices a manager works on with the project team. Practices that create the right kind of learning environment, one that helps people identify the gaps in their knowledge in find ways to fill them, and help people deliver successful projects.

Here’s three practices managers can try:

Make the work small, and make it visible. Think of these small pieces of work as safe-to-fail experiments, so that if they do fail they have minimal impact on the overall project.

Give and help people get regular, fast feedback. This should be person-to-person feedback, but just as important is feedback from users on the work. The best feedback helps us understand if we’re achieving the outcomes we want.

Encourage everyone to share their knowledge and experience, not only within their job role but also bring perspectives from their life experiences. This helps everyone learn from each other.