Failing Forward

I spend a lot of time talking to clients who’ve failed. They’ve either tried to implement a project that didn’t go as planned, or they’ve made the wrong choice of tools, technologies, people, or process. There are a thousand possible reasons for failure. Some could have been foreseen and avoided; some were awful surprises.

We all fail—if you haven’t, you will. Failure is not the end of the road; it’s the beginning of a learning opportunity. If I sound like a motivational speaker, I don’t mean to. I’m being realistic. You don’t learn much from success; you learn from failure. And, the most important lesson you should learn from failure is how to fail.

Failing properly sounds like an oxymoron. But really, failing properly—especially when we’re talking about IT projects—can open a path forward and make the eventual outcome better than the original outcome would have been if not for the failure. I call this phenomenon failing forward. So how do you fail forward? I’m glad you asked.

Perform the Autopsy—With an Eye on the Future

It’s only natural after you’ve declared defeat, to take a closer look at what happened to precipitate it. For example, if you’ve implemented an analytics initiative that’s proven less than successful, you’re going to ask what went wrong. Was it not the right tool? Were people not trained extensively enough to use it? Was the supporting architecture insufficient?

Don’t spend too much time finding fault and laying blame. Instead, focus on what you need to move forward. I know that sounds trite and obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies, after they experience a failure, analyze the failure ad nauseam to the point where they become paralyzed and unable to move forward. Don’t do that. Use every issue you find as an opportunity to learn, move forward, and make your next project better.

Focus on Delivering Value

One reason many IT initiatives—especially analytics initiatives—fail is that they don’t deliver sufficient value for the money spent. It’s that fuzzy cost-benefit concept from that managerial accounting class you slept through. Unfortunately, that concept is very real and very dangerous to those who fail to heed its dictum: whatever you build must return more than you invested in it, or you will fail.

To focus on delivering value going forward—and avoiding future failure, it’s key to answer three questions:

  1. Do we have a solid business case that can withstand the assault of X number of other projects competing for funding?
  2. Do we have the sponsorship who’ll commit the appropriate support and resources to this project?
  3. Have the requirements been fully defined so that everyone is on the same page as to what needs to be done, and what the timeline is for completing the project?

Obviously, if the answer to all these is not a resounding yes, you need to rethink the project. Maybe it’s not right for your organization, maybe it’s just not the right time, or maybe you just need to work harder—or smarter to turn the nos to yeses. If you learn anything from a failure, learn this: without being able to deliver projects with a perceived or actual value greater than their cost, you will keep delivering failure, not value.

Quantify and Measure Success

Yes, we’re talking about failure, and how to fail smarter, but in order to keep from failing again—or at least so many times—you need to understand what success looks like. Surprisingly, many companies don’t define success at the outset of a project, other than to declare that it will provide the “answers” that everyone’s been clamoring for.

That’s not enough. What you must do is, from the beginning, define what success will look like, in quantifiable terms. Will your logistics costs be reduced? By how much? Will your customer churn be reduced? By how much? Will your cross-sell and up-sell revenues increase? By how much? Of course, you can’t deliver an exact number, but you can create a target, aim for that target, and measure how close you get. Just make sure that your targets are realistic, achievable, and scrupulously communicated.

Fail Forward

No one will escape failure—it happens to all of us at one time or another. What we can do is learn from it and move forward, taking those lessons and putting them into practice so that our next project is the better for it.

I’d love to hear what you think. Please comment here, connect with me on Linkedin and Twitter, or email me at

Leave a Reply