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There's No Success Like Failure, and Failure's No Success At All

“…There’s No Success Like Failure, and…Failure’s No Success At All.”

By J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM, GWCPM, SCPM   |   Executive Vice President – Enterprise Solutions, IIL 

No matter how many times I read this line, or hear it sung by Bob Dylan in his song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” I think of projects that have, by any standard measure of project management, been massive failures, and yet over the years have turned out to be raging successes.

I’m thinking specifically of projects such as the Sydney Opera House, the Hubble Telescope, and Boston’s Big Dig. In some ways, these projects were just too big and too important to fail regardless of the time it took or what they cost. They just had to get done.

Michael Dean of Podio (part of Citrix) wrote a short but interesting article highlighting quite a few “budget busting” projects. In it, he provides a list of projects, most of which you probably know well or at least have heard of, that by conventional measures were failures.

Take the Sydney Opera House for example. That project was a whopping 1,400% (or so) over budget. The architect resigned in disgrace midway through the project vowing never to return to Australia again, so frustrated was he by the Sydneysiders he was reporting to. And yet, this iconic structure defines a country.

No visit to Australia is complete without visiting it, walking around its massive exterior, or floating by it as it juts out on Bennelong Point into Sydney Harbor. It’s a magnificent piece of work enjoyed by millions through the years (although, truth be told, I did find my seat to be a little uncomfortable during a performance there!). If you were to ask most folks in Australia today they would argue that the Sydney Opera House was nothing short of a majestic success.

Anyway, all this has me thinking that perhaps we spend too much time agonizing over a few bucks here, and a few months there. Maybe our definition of “project failure” needs to be adjusted some.

For example, if you lengthen the original business case by a few years from the original estimate, many projects would be considered successes rather than failures. Why do I say that? Because that’s what business writers, and maybe even Boeing itself, think about the 787 Dreamliner. Sure, if measured by its original business case, the plane is probably considered a failure, but most people believe that Boeing will recover all their lost costs and start making a lot of money because more and more customers appear willing to buy more of this innovative flying machine that will be around for a very long time.

In some cases, no one really knows how certain projects (especially large, complex endeavors that have never been done before) will end up, do they? After all, when they begin they are all based on estimates; but, as we know, estimates can change – for better or worse, by very wide margins.

Here’s another thought: maybe we even need to stop dwelling on project failure so much and start obsessing with our successes.

I’m not sure what that would do for the likes of Standish, Gartner, Forrester and others who make so much hay (and money) talking about project failure, but it might be good to take a different perspective every once in a while.

What’s your take? Have you had a massive failure that actually worked out great in the end?

J. LeRoy Ward is a highly respected consultant and adviser to Global Fortune 500 Corporations and government agencies in the areas of project, program and portfolio management. With more than 38 years of government and private sector experience, LeRoy specializes in working with senior executives to understand their role in project and program sponsorship, governance, portfolio management and the strategic execution of projects and programs.

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