The value of failure

I would never recommend making a mess of a program, just for the benefit of learning something. But, when something does go south – and it will – resist the temptation to “justify” why it’s happened, with tired old business bromides.

Part of learning is making mistakes and my first program from hell many years ago taught me some very valuable lessons. I was working on a major program in the United States which was doomed from the beginning. Six months after I returned from the United States, I received a phone call from the CEO’s office. The call would change my life, although I didn’t realise it at the time. The CEO wanted to see me as soon as I could make it. So, I dropped everything and drove into London that afternoon.

Entering the room, the CEO asked me to sit in one of the casual chairs. This was new. Each time I had been there before, meetings were more formal. But now I was sitting side-by-side with the CEO in one of his cosy chairs. What could this mean?

Getting quickly to the point, the CEO said that he wanted to apologise to me. Earlier that day, the board had taken a big decision, to cancel a major program in the US and stop investing in a “dog that didn’t hunt.”

Months earlier, he said he had been wrong to sidestep advice that I gave him while I had previously been running the program. Faced with changing their minds and sticking with the original path, the board had got busy on proving there was no need to change. He said the Board had been responsible for too much “happy talk” about the program – and agreed that there never was a genie in the bottle.

After months in the business wilderness, he promised that he would find a new challenge for me soon. And he did precisely that.


From fixing a failing program to running a successful one

Leaving the HQ building, I was walking on air. On that sunny afternoon in May, a colossal weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Two weeks later, I became the Program Director for the highest profile, game-changing program the company had seen in a decade. I had been given a new lease of life – a brand new start. My brief flirtation with marketing was over.

Twelve months earlier, life was very different. I had been sent to the USA to “fix” a failing program – a full-blown Sales Order Management System. The program was high profile and the CEO saw the package as critical to the company’s application system portfolio – a package that had been pre-sold to a number of prestigious clients.

On the face of it, it looked a winner. “Blue chip” customers in Australia, Canada and the USA were eagerly waiting for delivery of the new system. But what this intrepid band didn’t know was that the system was little more than a set of concepts.

It didn’t actually exist. I didn’t know this either when I flew to Dallas to take the reins of the program.


The program setup

The Sales Order Management System was being developed by an independent software house, for the US arm of the company. The program didn’t “feel” right from the start. Initial meetings with the President of the software house only confirmed this.

I was confronted with anorexic and misleading plans; high-level estimates; no design documents, program specifications or test plans. Program progress reports were complete distortions – little more than yarns. Completion dates were not worth a candle. Developers were literally cutting code from flimsy module descriptions in the Marketing Handbook. No one internally seemed to have the right strategy execution skills. The code itself was riddled with bugs that were just stacking up. And if it were possible to make matters worse, the pages of the handbook had “Draft – Subject to Change” written on each.

Even though the air was steadily going out of my balloons, I attempted to ride through the difficulties, grasp the nettle and beat this “impossible” challenge.

I wanted to please my sponsors – the people who had shown faith in me. I also wanted to show that, given the right attitude, it was possible to make up for the glaring oversights that had already occurred.

… almost overnight, I started suffering from Pinocchio Syndrome

Although the problems were massive, I didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere with negativity. I presented an optimistic picture. My briefings to the CEO were frank, but I did pull punches and gave the board hope that problems could be fixed.

Almost overnight, I started suffering from Pinocchio Syndrome. There was little substance behind my self-confidence, apart from a burning aspiration to turn things around.

Emotions ran high during the early meetings with the President of the software house – and his management team. How could they have allowed this situation to develop? Why didn’t they have more realistic plans or arranged an earlier review of the program? How had they managed to hoodwink the US subsidiary of my company into parting with millions of dollars, on the back of progress reports that were just gumph?


Recommended article: Read this before you start a new program


… surprises came thick and fast

The first version of the plan allowed the US subsidiary to meet its critical customer commitments – but only just. Everything had to run smoothly. There would be no time to deal with surprises.

But surprises came thick and fast – each chipping away at the completion date. Milestone after milestone was missed – and each delayed event was dealt with in the same way. What had caused the problem? Why? What had they done to make sure it couldn’t happen again?

Could they be confident that the remainder of the plan was still viable?

Within a few months, it was clear that the developers had little hope of meeting dates. And while they talked expertly about how modules should behave, they were simply unable to cut the mustard.

The program looked a step too far.

Maybe, they had never done anything like this before and just didn’t have the capability and skills? Whatever the reason, this team had a bad dose of optimism bias.

I was locked into a personal nightmare – anxious customers and an enthusiastic but impatient board. I had brought it all on myself. The scenario was worthy of a Shakespearean suicide. I wondered what to do.


My business life was going downhill

During the next few weeks, I visited key clients in the US and Canada to brief them on the state of play. Each account was a sensitive sales situation. I had to be careful what I said to avoid putting any client relationship in danger.

Unfortunately, this meant putting a positive spin on what was essentially terrible news. This was agonizingly difficult and I felt massively conflicted.

Back at the software house, there was little improvement. Code quality continued to deteriorate and bug levels climbed. Daily meetings prioritised bugs but many of the so-called “fixes” just introduced more problems. They were simply killing the alligators near the boat.

Working with my program team, we wrestled with the mounting problems. What could we do? Were we overlooking something simple? But we couldn’t fix one basic problem – this “skyscraper” did not have solid foundations. And when a building is under construction, foundations can’t be wished into place.

If planning is weak, people can expect to spend at least 80% of their time in meetings doing rework and solving problems. This is exactly what was happening.

My business life was slowly rolling downhill. The strain of reconciling the demands of HQ with the various sales divisions – and critical customer situations took its toll. My mind was in turmoil.

Fourteen hour days were followed by draining dinner discussions with close work colleagues. Many restless nights followed. Sometimes I woke, sweating profusely with racing heartbeat. I would then stand in a cold shower for up to an hour to cool down. It was a tricky time.


Getting a new Program Director

After a few days reflection, I flew back to the UK to meet with the CEO and his trusted lieutenants. This time I did not pull any punches. I was direct. I left them in no doubt – this program was a “flame out.” They should abandon it. The disappointment and irritation among the executive team was plain to see.

When my presentation finished, the room became eerily silent. I was asked to leave while the CEO and his team considered their options. But I didn’t have long to wait before being asked to return.

They had decided to continue with the program and ignore my opinion. They said the stakes were too high and the situation was too complicated to turn back.

Perhaps, the program needed a fresh perspective? They would find another Program Director. And, within weeks, they did.

Returning to the UK, after 6 months in the US, was demoralising. Not only had the CEO ignored my advice, but I was seen to have “failed” by the executive team and by many of my peers. More bad news followed. There were no suitable program director slots open. I was officially “spare.”


Failure is not the opposite of success

Fortunately, a colleague from another business offered me a marketing directors’ job in the consultancy arm of the business.

This wasn’t what I wanted to do – but I felt that I didn’t have much choice. I had a mortgage, a wife and a young family to support. For months, I reluctantly got involved in the marketing of consultancy services.

Black clouds hung over my head and my mind churned endlessly about what I could have done differently. But apart from wishing that I had been courageous enough to pull the curtain back on the fiasco sooner, I didn’t come up with anything new.


5 lessons this program from hell taught me

1. Face facts

The basic purpose of any control system is to provide feedback relative to plans. In my case, the negative evidence was overwhelming but I played it down. I summarised and cleansed it because I was too worried about top management’s reaction. There was no reliable baseline plan, no facts against which to judge progress – no facts on which to make even rough predictions. So, never play the “wild guess” game. It’s a sure-fire recipe for Pinocchio management – and you can be sure, that is a losing strategy.

2. Trust your instincts

Stupidly, I adopted an optimistic stance. “Surely, it can’t be that bad?” Well, it was bad for everyone, me included. If I had listened to my gut, I would not have been tempted to put “lipstick on the pig” to make things seem better. Don’t hang around. Do your homework. Get bad news out fast. Then you can do something about it.

3. Stand up to the “big boys”

Most senior executives understand what needs to happen, at an abstract level. But many are out of touch with how work actually gets done. This places an obligation on Program Managers to get fact-based information across to executive sponsors in a meaningful way. This means that you can’t always be deferential to senior management. You will have to speak up – and even be blunt. Senior managers don’t have a monopoly on common sense.

4. Worry about your own reputation, last

Smart talk and political manoeuvres are frequently confused with good performance. But never for long. Both are transparent and eventually exposed, either by you or by somebody else. Worrying about your reputation, at the expense of a reluctance to say “the emperor has no clothes” is the sign of a losing attitude. Done constructively, frankness always boosts reputations.

5. Hard work does not guarantee a successful program

Many people can work incredibly hard on projects for many months and not get the results they want. There is no substitute for clarity, crisp communication, “adequate” planning, good people and effective controls. They seem obvious – but they are so easy not to do. And mostly, it’s not done as well as it should be.


Failure is not the opposite of success. We know this is untrue. With anything new, we have to fail before we succeed. It’s inevitable.

Failure is just a step on the road to success. Modern Science is based on this principle. Scientists know that an experiment is never truly a “failure.” It’s just a lesson. It teaches us what not to do – and pushes us to look at other approaches until we find one that works.

Often, if we feel we are failing, we are tempted to quit. But seeing failure as a lesson, rather than a mistake, is a much more powerful way to look at things. Not making this critical distinction is probably one of the greatest barriers to growth and change.

I would never recommend making a mess of a program, just for the benefit of learning something. But, when something does go south – and it will – resist the temptation to “justify” why it’s happened, with tired old business bromides.

Be frank and honest – and treat it as a whopping opportunity to really grow from the experience.

Suffering is optional – but you have to provide it yourself.