Recognizing and Learning from Failure: Project Management Lessons from a Colorado Summit Bid
While failure is no fun, it is a part of life. Whether summitting mountains or managing projects, there are times when one must recognize the signs of failure, make the tough decision to call it a day, and learn from the experience to return smarter and stronger next time.
This past summer, I took a vacation to Colorado which was a blast. Three days on the agenda consisted of backpacking into the Chicago Basin, camping, and summiting 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet). I had no prior mountaineering experience though was with someone who did, and we planned extensively. I had the right gear, was in good shape, and the conditions were ideal; I was feeling confident. On the second day, as I attempted a second summit, I began feeling fatigued, making mental errors, and falling behind. Though I tried to press on, I was aware that poor decisions and continued mistakes, especially near the summit, could be catastrophic (see Wickens, Keller, & Shaw, 2015).
I made the difficult call to abandon the summit bid and hiked down to lower elevation. Watching the beautiful sunrise over the basin lakes, I began to reflect on the failure, thinking about it in terms of project management given a summit bid, like a project, is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique…result” (Project Management Institute, 2008, p. 5). Though a project manager (PM) never plans to fail, they do identify the risks and notice the potential signs of failure so that they can correct course. As a last resort, a responsible PM may decide it is best to call it quits before stakeholder and company losses become too great.
Recognizing the Signs
In a Project Management Institute (PMI) published article "Managing Troubled Projects", Alaskar (2013) outlines signs that a project may be in jeopardy. Several of these apply to my summit bid:
Learning from Failure
In another PMI published article, Ranganath (2006) presents a learning from experience (LifE) cycle for project management that applies to dealing with project failure. The cycle involves:
Though it may be a bit painful, tell us about a project failure whether work related or not. If you like to climb mountains, tell us about that too!
Alaskar, A. H. (2013). Managing troubled projects. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2013—North America, New Orleans, LA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide) (4th ed.). Project Management Institute.
Ranganath, P. G. (2006). LIfE—learning and improving from experience. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—North America, Seattle, WA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Wickens, Christopher D.; Keller, John W.; and Shaw, Christopher (2015) "Human Factors in High-Altitude Mountaineering," Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments: Vol. 12 : Iss. 1 , Article 1.
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