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Fail Fast: Fail Safe

Fail Fast, Fail Safe

Late last year I headed over to Project Management & BA Summit in New York; it’s a conference that includes two distinct streams for both professions. There was also a bigger focus on the people aspects of project management and business analysis too, so I listened in to a session about failure.

The session was run by a guy called Paul Crosby, he works for Bob the BA (great name!) and it was focused on failure helping us to learn – Fail Fast, Fail Safe.

Failure has been a popular topic in recent times – the books Black Box Thinking from Matthew Syed and Adapt from Tim Harford have found their way onto the shelves of project management practitioners.

As projects become ever more complex and complicated, the VUCA world we’re living in must mean that failures are inevitable. Failures will happen, what needs to change is our attitude towards failure.

That formed the basis of the session. Failure is how we learn and in organisations today there has to be a change in mindset in how that is managed; how people are allowed to fail without penalties; how failure lessons are shared; and a better approach developed that enables us to turn failure into success.

Paul talked about projects and project teams being given the time and authority to work through a problem – giving them the space to try out different solutions rather than playing it safe. Experimentation is about giving the team permission to fail.

He also talked about how project teams are working together to make things better – not perfect. That project practitioners are known for asking questions and that it’s natural for us to be curious.

So how can project teams think differently about failure?

Paul talked about the Fail Fast Model, it has its roots in Agile, and how that can be used by teams to fail safely.


We often hear that project practitioners should be getting more creative and innovative with the way they manage and deliver projects yet how does this happen in reality? The Adaptive Strategy Executive Programme touches on this aspect with the Design Thinking for Results, yet there is still more to learn and more freedom required to try out new approaches.

I wrote about a great TED talk by Eduardo Briceno, a learning expert. “He talks about flawless execution cultures and how organisations today fostering this type of culture encourages people to stay in their comfort zones – just performing the role with minimal innovation and discouraging the opportunity to try new things. Failure or even just having the time to try out new things is not an environment most of us work in.”

In the Fail Safe Model we can start by being curious about finding different ways to solve problems. We can explore our own curiosity and we can also – as project leaders – enable our teams to be curious about their work.

Briceno also explores how individuals and teams can experiment safely. He recommends creating low-stake islands in high-stake environments. This is about creating pockets in our projects – or for example in our PMOs – where concepts, pilots, experiments and experiences can be created and tried out. In reality this is about time-boxing an idea – letting it flourish and be tried out, letting the team explore how it could be played out. Here Paul gives some examples:

  • Prototyping – do you have an environment where you can play with the system or solution before starting to build the solution?
  • User Interface (screens and reports) Mockups & Wire Frames – visualize the interfaces and gain agreement before starting development or construction
  • Building a Concept Piñata – get the candy out by being a skeptic and challenging the concept until it becomes stronger
  • Demolition Derby – trying to get it to break, hacking it up – intentionally trying to make it fail – think of it in terms of being a quality analyst trying to get the system to implode.
  • Conference room pilots – walking through the process in a realistic way with a group of stakeholder
  • Make it a Beta version for user to play with and get user feedback – frame it as an experiment

If an idea fails, it fails. An idea was tested out without impacting the rest of the project.

If the idea fails, the real learning comes from reflecting on the failure and learning the lessons. It’s about taking one or two lessons away from the experience with you and moving on. You will fail again and that’s how we continue to grow and learn from our experiences.

If an idea works, the Fail Safe Model asks that analysis and conclusions take place. What started as a germ of an idea can potentially change the way an organisation manages part of its projects or how it delivers to customers. Whatever it is, an idea can be managed through to instigating change.

Fail Fast, Fail Safe

Paul finished the session with a reminder about Fast and Safe:

F – Frame it – see your opportunities, fun list, expand your area of knowledge by volunteering
A – Accept – allow yourself to fail, give yourself permission
S – Seek – be curious, exploration is the key to innovation and invention
T – Think – plan for a soft landing, prototyping, think about ways to fail safely
S – Strategic – Create a plan, 1-3 years out, keep it short term to make it relevant, anything longer then 3 years never works out
A – Accountable – Measurements to know you are failing, observation, feedback from others
F – Flexible – Understand your discovery could take you in a completely different direction that is unexpected
E – Expectations – set expectations clearly and often, create the common understanding we need to fail in order to learn


It’s time to start getting curious about how we can deliver differently, how we can change for the better and we can win and fail as a team and learn from that.

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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

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