Posted by: rolfsky | April 9, 2009

understanding failure and success


Why do projects fail?

Projects do not fail because of poor planning, the wrong people, or a bad idea. All of these can be remedied over time with dedication, time, and resources. Projects fail when we give up, “run out of time”, or have no money left.

These items break down into two basic elements:

  1. the will
  2. the way

Projects fail when either the resources to achieve success run out (the way), or the motivation to continue falls away (the will).

Last week while attending the Marketing 2.0 conference in Paris, I had the pleasure of dinner and few beers with a fellow speaker, Scott Foe from Nokia’s game division. Over a pint of Guinness (tragically, from a can), Scott mentioned to me that his greatest business mentor was a graduate of West Point and had imparted to him that business really was war.

Attack the way and the enemy can’t fight back; attack the will, and the enemy won’t want to.

The military strategy of “shock and awe” is a perfect example of combining the two: simultaneously removing the capability and desire to fight, in a show of rapid dominance. Modern wars are fought not only with guns and tanks, but also with pamphlets, instructions on how to surrender, and subversive radio.

One missing element:

To the list of two ingredients above, we should add a third:

  1. the will
  2. the way
  3. a definition of “success”

Without evil, we cannot define good; unless we define success, we are doomed to failure. America’s involvement in Vietnam ultimately failed because America’s leadership failed to define a compelling vision of success and ultimately lost the support of the people.

(On a side note, success was perhaps specifically not defined, as to do so would have been admitting that it was an anti-communist proxy-war. Also, our traditional methods of warfare were completely unsuited to destroying “the way” of a military infrastructure that had limited structure.)

Success and failure the business world.

In the business world, our projects fail and succeed for the same reasons. Either we run out of time or money, the business ultimately decides to shut it down, or there is no possibility of success because success has never been defined. When sitting down to a new project (and throughout the project’s progression), ask yourself and your superiors three questions:

  1. “is there a desire within the company to continue this project?”
  2. “do I have the time/resources” to achieve my goals?”
  3. “what does success look like?”

If you start hesitating on any of the three questions (or the answer is no), your project is in serious jeopardy.

Rescuing “failing” projects:

Luckily, the three elements of success are interrelated. Fixing one often means tweaking another.

Resources (time, money, people) are ultimately the most concrete of all three elements. These are allocated on balance sheets by people who count numbers. If your resources are running out, this can often mean that your primary concern should actually be your support. Why isn’t the company willing to invest in this any longer? Why has the will failed? Hint: there is always more time and money, you just need people to help you look.

Motivation and Support (recognition, impetus, desire) controls the purse-strings on your project. If the company has no desire to continue your project, they won’t. Maybe you screwed up and blew your budget, or maybe the market has changed, and the will has focused on other priorities. Without securing support, securing resources is impossible. To secure support, you need to present the vision of why supporting you is a good idea.

Your Vision of Success (possibilities becoming realities) is the foundation upon which all support and resources for your project is built. If this compelling vision hasn’t been defined outside your team (from above), this is the most critical element to focus on. This vision will carry you through the hard times and serve as your yardstick to success in the good times. If you want management to believe in your project, tie it into their definitions of success, then give them something to believe in and deliver it. If they can’t commit the resources to attain your grand plan, let them know how they’re knocking down their own vision of success.

Any war stories to share about your encounters of success or failure?



  1. […] took Mitch’s list and broke them down into three categories I mentioned in my earlier “understanding failure and success” post. Most of his reasons for failure are simply the nitty-gritty of executing any plan, while […]

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