Celebrate Failure - Why On Earth Would We Do That?

Recently a blog, “Should We Celebrate a Failure Worth a Billion?” was posted on the Beyond Innovation discussion group on LinkedIn. The blog is worth reading since it raises an important issue in both innovation and project management – should we celebrate (or otherwise reward) failure?

As part of a previous job, I used to deliver innovation training for project managers (I still do, but as a freelance consultant rather than an employee) and was surprised how few of them actually celebrated the end of a project. I would stress that an end of project celebration was a good way to close out the project and move on to the next. The question always arose “What if the project failed? Why would we celebrate that?” The answer is quite simple – we are not celebrating success or failure, we are celebrating effort.

When a project starts to fail, a committed team generally works very hard to try to turn the project around and often put in more effort than teams working on easier projects. A celebration at the end of a project, even a failed one, recognises and rewards that effort and makes it more likely that they will put the similar effort into the next project.

What are the consequences if we only celebrate success? In a culture where success is valued more than effort, innovation projects suffer from a number of detrimental effects.

1)      Failure is hidden. Project reports will be very upbeat and only positive results will be reported. Negative results will be explained away as aberrations, or due to errors in testing (unless the team itself is responsible for the testing in which case it will be faulty equipment).

2)      Whatever we hit becomes the target. The goals of the project will be reviewed and adjusted so that they are closer to what is actually being achieved. I had a project manager tell me a project I was reviewing was on time and on budget. He was quite right – against the current plan. In actual fact, against the original plan, it was 2 years late and had already cost double the budget.

3)      All teams are perfect. On the rare occasion that project debriefs are carried out, they tend to be very positive and show the team in the best light. I have seen a project debrief which said that communication in the project was very good, despite the fact that one team member was still working on the project because nobody had told him it had been stopped six months earlier.

Note that these are not necessary deliberate actions. They are things that happen as teams and individuals try to fit with the prevailing corporate culture.

Overall, difficult, high risk projects will be avoided, or abandoned at the first hurdle, and only the easy, lower risk projects will be worked on. However, it is likely that the lower risk projects are more incremental in nature and so, by only celebrating results, we will tend to push our innovation effort towards incremental improvement projects and away from more radical developments. If that is what we want then fair enough, but most companies need a balance between incremental innovation to remain competitive now and radical innovation to be competitive in the future.

In summary, if we only celebrate success, people adapt by making projects look successful even when they aren’t, but if you celebrate effort, people will adapt by persevering until they either solve the problems or show that they genuinely cannot be solved. Or in the words of Edward de Bono:

“If you reward effort you will get results, but if you reward results you will not necessarily get effort.”


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