What’s the Impact of Fear of Failure?

“Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success.”

How is the Attitude About Failure Different in Agile?

One of the key things that differentiate an Agile approach from a traditional plan-driven approach is the attitude towards failure:

Agile Environment

In an Agile environment,

  • A “failure” is seen in a positive sense as an opportunity for learning
  • There’s a very popular mantra of “fail early, fail often”

In other words, sometimes you just have to try something and see what works. Being totally risk-averse and attempting to analyze and anticipate every possible risk and contingency before you even get started may not produce the best results.

Traditional Plan-driven Environment

In a traditional, plan-driven environment,

  • The attitude towards failure is many times very different
  • Any significant, unexpected event that occurs might be regarded as a failure and many times is regarded negatively
  • There is often an inference that you didn’t do enough upfront planning to anticipate the problem and avoid it

Risk Management – What’s the Right Approach?

The approach to risk management is directly related to fear of failure. I don’t think either the Agile or the plan-driven approach is necessarily right or wrong. It’s a question of how much risk is appropriate to accept and what’s the best way to manage it.

  • Like many things, it depends on the situation
  • There are some situations that call for a more risk-averse approach and some that don’t

The Edge of Chaos

Some businesses in our current client spectrum have to operate on the “edge of chaos” because of a highly competitive business environment. If they were overly risk-averse and had excessive fear of failure, they would not be successful in their business. That would be a failure in itself to not do anything to “push the envelope”.

Another saying I like is “If you’ve never failed, you’re not trying hard enough”

  • Amazon is probably a good example of a company that has a lot of failures like the smartphone they tried to develop
  • Yet they continue to push the envelope to explore very risky new technology such as package delivery with drones
  • I’m sure that they feel that they need to continue to “push the envelope” to maintain their competitive position

Other More Conservative Environments

In other environments,

The Grey Area

There’s a lot of grey area between those extremes where it may require considerable judgment to figure out what the right approach should be. Any project that involves a large amount of uncertainty might be an example. You need to determine:

  • How much uncertainty you can tolerate and let it be resolved as the project progresses, and
  • How much of it you can’t tolerate and need to resolve upfront before the project starts

It would probably be very irresponsible to take a cavalier approach and ignore the potential impact of risks. However, on the other hand, it could be equally problematic to get bogged down in “analysis paralysis” and never get started. Trying to anticipate and mitigate every possible risk that could possibly happen could easily stop progress.

What Level of Risk Is Acceptable?

The most important thing is to have a clear mutual understanding and a sense of partnership between the project team and the project sponsor about:

  • What the goals of the project are,
  • What level of risk is acceptable in the project, and
  • How those risks will be managed

Agile Projects

In an Agile project, that’s typically easier to do because the relationship with the business sponsor is based on a spirit of trust and partnership as well as openness and transparency. The Business Sponsor should:

  • Have a sufficient level of judgment and maturity to make good, sound decisions on the project
  • Be intimately involved as the project progresses to provide ongoing direction

Traditional Plan-driven Projects

In many traditional, plan-driven environments, the business sponsors may not have that level of maturity and there may be less of a spirit of partnership with the project team.

  • The Business Sponsors frequently put that responsibility totally on the project team to “just get it done” and don’t necessarily want to know about any risks at all
  • That can lead to a fear of failure and a “CYA” approach by the project team:
    • It can cause the project team to over-analyze the project to avoid any possible problems and
    • It can also lead to less-than-open sharing of project information to avoid airing any “dirty laundry” with the project sponsors

There is generally a direct relationship between risk and opportunity and completely avoiding risks due to the impact of fear of failure may lead to a very mediocre solution!

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About the Author

Jason Novobranec is Implementary’s Chief Operating Officer.

With over 20 years of Consulting, Program Management & Senior Leadership experience, Jason has delivered initiatives for large multi-national / multi-regional organisations as well as SME’s and is an expert in shaping solutions to fit a customer’s project needs.