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What it Means to Fail Productively

Alongside project successes come project failures. Tim Harford, economist, journalist, and best-selling author of "The Undercover Economist," says the key to unlocking project leadership is to 'fail productively.' However, with a wide percentage of projects experiencing some sort of failure, with "31 percent of projects not meeting their goals, 43 percent exceeding their initial budgets, and 49 percent late" (Greene, J., 2017), it begs the question - is it even possible to fail productively? Most project managers recognize that the best lessons learned come from our failures, but also within these failures can come success.

How does one find success in failure? Well, do as you would in your everyday life. We have all made mistakes that we wish we could take back. One of my biggest failures in life was not educating myself in making smart investments. Sure, in school they teach you to balance a check book. But no one ever taught me about making smart investments into your savings and retirement accounts so that in the future, when you are looking to invest in property like buying your first home, you'd be ready with a down payment and still have money in savings. This life failure came late for me. While I watched my friend's purchase homes in their mid-twenties, I did not get around to buying property until my late thirties. However, with this lesson learned comes the knowledge that I will not repeat this mistake. I learned the hard way about the arduous process of making smart investments and eventually turned this failure into a success as it brought me one step closer to my end goal.

The same concept can be applied to our professional lives. As project managers, we have to be accepting of project failure. It's inevitable and that's OK.

Without experimentation and trying out new ways to improve processes, we may find ourselves stagnant in our project, continuing to repeat mistakes over and over again.

The payoff of experimentation, even if it fails, is the understanding of what worked and what did not work to help improve the health of the project for the future. The next time you beat yourself up over a project failure, think about how you can turn the learnings into a future success and learn to fail productively.

Consider what mistakes you've made in your life professionally and personally. Did you learn from these failures? Even acceptance of the failure is a win because it highlights your ability to recognize that not all mistakes are bad. Some may be good, as long as it helps you learn and advance in either/or your professional and everyday life.



Greene, J. (ND). The top 9 reasons for IT project failure: Is your project at risk? Retrieved from,and%2049%20percent%20were%20late.

Liquid Planner. The importance of failing productively. Retrieved from

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