Recovering from failure

Recovering from failure

Some say that between 45% to 55% of IT projects fail. Others also say that 80% of statistics are made up on the spot, or is it 75%?

Irrespective of how many projects fail the important thing to realize is, they do fail. Failure is a relative term, and can be varied in scope, intensity and consequence. Some projects run over resource or time constraints with marginal consequence, others fail miserably with disastrous consequences.

In 1999, NASA lost one of its $129-Million Mars Orbiters due to a seemingly obvious problem and mistake. The problem being the conversion from inches, feet and pounds to millimeters, meters and kilograms, with the quite disastrous mistake being that it wasn’t being converted at all.

As it turns out the two teams working on the project, NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and Lockheed Martin were using the different measurement systems for their respective calculations. The result being that after its 286-day journey to Mars, the Orbiter initiated and engine burn to push itself into its final orbit around Mars. Due to the unit mismatch, it pushed the orbiter 25 km closer to the atmosphere than it should have. Subsequently things got worse, the engine overheated, turned itself off and ultimately the orbiter shot through the upper Mars atmosphere, popping out the other side, sending it outwards into space. Presumably to ‘where no man has gone before’.

For us in the enterprise software development space, the consequence of failure isn’t quite as extreme as was the case for the Mars orbiter, but stakes are still pretty high in terms of delivering feature rich, high quality software solutions to our clients. There is the obvious financial impact of failed projects, but most importantly there is a huge loss-of-opportunity cost. This can range from a basic loss of income caused by not being able to capitalize on your ideas or initiatives, to making bad business decisions by not having sufficient insight into your own business data. Bad decisions can cost you your business.


So, when things do go wrong and don’t work out as expected; what then?

Well, depending of the severity of the failure, your first action might be to Google The Seven Stages of Grief (Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing, Acceptance). And then you realize that ironically a lack of Testing and Acceptance is probably what got you into this mess in the first place!

Then as the shock fades you turn your attention back to the task at hand. What now?

As a start, it is to be expected that your client will most probably be very angry and may need an outlet to vent their frustration. Don’t see this as a negative aspect of the experience. The important point to note here is to listen and show the client that you care, not that you are just sympathetic, but that you are deeply empathetic as to what has transpired.

Own your mistakes

By building meaningful relationships with your clients, it will create room for experimentation and ultimately create tolerance for mistakes. It is important to own your mistakes and to never underestimate the value of saying you are sorry.

Consider all the information at hand before responding to your client’s view point and frustrations. It is important to take stock and assess what when wrong. Most of the time it is not a single factor, but a series of factors and events that culminates into a crisis. It is important the translate this into a learning experience for both yourself, your team and even your client.

Never waste a good crisis

This will naturally lead you into a space where you can start the recovery process, for both yourself and your client. This is the stage where you start fighting your way back and winning back some of the trust that may have been lost. You need to research, plan, negotiate and work your way back. This is where you show what you are made of, you need to commit time, resources and potentially money to work towards your planned goals of recovery.

Some challenges along the way will include winning back enough trust from the client to allow you room to execute your recovery plan. You will need to keep your team motivated throughout, keeping them committed to the end goal. This is where you will learn a lot about the people you are working with and you will come to see the qualities that are needed in a strong team; courage, resolve and strength of character, in other words: Grit.

Failure equals opportunity

In conclusion, failure is sometimes inevitable, but over the span of your career you will become more skilled at managing that risk, becoming better at foreseeing and preempting failures. The important part is to know that in the face of failure, there are a multitude of opportunities to seize, you just need the courage to do so.

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