Education

First-time project managers need failures

One of the greatest impediments to a first-time project manager's success is their need to succeed. Paul Glen says there are three things they really need -- and early success isn't one of them.

Nothing succeeds like success, except in project management where nothing succeeds like failure.

Managing an IT project is very difficult, especially the first time you try it. The project manager's days and nights are filled with stress, worry, dreams, aspirations, and fear. Some first timers are overwhelmed by their newfound power, while some are weighed down by the responsibility. But for most, the overriding concern is to avoid both personal and project failure.

This fear is often instilled and/or reinforced by the project manager's supervisor. The new assignment is often initiated with comments like, "Don't screw this up." "This is your big chance to shine." Or, "don't make me look bad and regret giving you this opportunity." Trust me, those sorts of comments really help first timers succeed.

For the project manager, this sort of fear is not only counterproductive, but also misplaced. In fact, I think that every first time project manager desperately needs to fail. That's right. I'm not just saying that it's ok to fail; I'm saying that if they don't fail, they may never learn to be effective project managers. In fact, complete success may set their management careers back by years.

As a manager, consultant, trainer, and coach, I've had the opportunity to work with hundreds of first-time project managers, and I've become convinced that one of the greatest impediments to their success is their need to succeed. If against all odds they do manage to succeed, they fall prey to the twin career killers, arrogance and self-confidence, depriving them of the opportunity to grow and learn.

Project management is such a complex discipline that it is completely impossible for a first timer to have mastered all the subtleties of task, people, and risk management. In fact, it's impossible for anyone, no matter how experienced, to have mastered it all. The successful first timer is invariably lulled into a false sense of security that they know much more than they really do. They become convinced that they are now fully-fledged managers and can take on anything.

What's more dangerous is that they get brain freeze. They stop learning. Why learn when you have mastered a topic?

It can take two or three failed projects to undo the career damage inflicted by early success before a new project manager reclaims the humility and open-mindedness that they started with. Unfortunately, by that time, their careers have probably absorbed major damage. It is one thing to be seen as making a few mistakes as a first timer; it's another to have demonstrated a pattern of failure. Both the manager's image and self-image have been irretrievably damaged.

So what does the first timer need?

  • A few big mistakes
  • Permission to make those mistakes
  • Coaching and introspection to learn from them

If you are a first-time project manager, be prepared for some problems along the way. Relax and enjoy the ride. No one will lose respect for you.

If you are the manager of a first timer, give them permission to make mistakes. When they do, make sure that they learn from them and don't make the same ones again. Coach them about the sources of problems and the meaning of their failures. It's normal for them to have difficulties, but make sure that you view them as training investments and not as screw-ups. Your job is to ensure that you get the maximum return on investment for the training that mistakes offer.

Becoming a project manager is hard work, but a little failure will help make the transition from individual producer to manager more successful.

22 comments
RimieSmith
RimieSmith

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Joaquim Amado Lopes
Joaquim Amado Lopes

Not looking to stand out from the crowd (and, by the previous comments, I'm an aprentice next to you guys) but I don't agree with the point of this article. First of all, "failure helps us to learn and keeps us humble" applies to all, not just first-timers. How many of you seasoned PM's believe that there was (or there will be) a point in your careers when you can honestly say that you have nothing more to learn from failure? The only thing that failure teaches us is that we don't know everything nor we can do everything right everytime. And this is true even after a million failures and having learned something from every single one of them. Second, failure doesn't teach us how things are done, only one way they are not. I'm not a big fan of "trial and error" as there are many more ways of "how not" than there are of "how to". Also, one of the very first things one learns in this business is that there are not two projects alike. So, what didn't work one time can work the next and vice-versa. But there is a reason why failling is not all bad. When you fail, you learn that you may fail sometimes and that prepares you on how to deal with failure. Failure shouldn't become a second nature to you but it must not be seen as a complete disaster otherwise every little failure WILL become a disaster. As the song says "I get knocked down but I get up again". No matter how bad things are, liders must keep their posture and not dwell on "how could that happen?" until the problem is solved. Just my 2 cents. Cheers.

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

I liked seeing this philosophy applied to the PM discipline - and I think it should be applied to just about every job I can imagine (excluding roles in Public Safety and Health and Welfare). The key is to overcome the organization's cultural barriers to this pragmatic long-term approach. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

passengerabcd
passengerabcd

The first timer needs failures or makes mistakes for his debut, but does not necessarily require a total failure to destroy his confidence or belief. To avoid making big mistakes afterwards due to lack of failure experience, PM can treat every single project assignment as the first one they have, try to recall the fist time experience of tension, pressure and excitement, and make positive use of them to get along and succeed.

mrbobyu
mrbobyu

I have actually to agree most of the part you said is true. People tend to overcome their capacity of knowdledge when they succeed. Drawback I mean after all if someone failed he might be thinking that project manager doesn't suit for him so he can easily drop the case and let another person do it. The key in all that is Motivation. If you have motivation for this domain, even you success or fail, you will be always be ahead of everyone. You will automatically do whatever you need to do to stay up to date and also become a more self condient person. It is true when you fail you tend to learn more from your mistakes than when you succeed.

opsres
opsres

Do the PMBOK and PMP certification encourage the notion of early failures or does PMI's methodology hinder the project manager?

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

I just started my first major project and some parts went smoothly and some parts were really difficult. There are just some things that formulas can't anticipate and there are just some intagibles that you can't account for. You can't be a great PM from just reading a book or getting a piece of paper. You have to actually work on projects, screw up and learn. Throughout my young career I learned from screwing up.

biancaluna
biancaluna

What a great article. It is not success that breeds knowledge and wisdom, but failure and having to weather those storms. I have to agree with many of the other posters, there appears to be an expectation of success, not just in PM disciplines. Failure is not an option, coaching and mentoring and apprenticeships are so rare nowadays. PM courses don't focus sufficiently on the emotion of project management and too much on paperwork. At the end of the day, a lot of PMs are type A high achievers who fall mighty hard when they fail. There need to be a more permissive culture, with safety nets and absence of blame storming. I am a long term female PM and call myself the sacrificial lamb. I have to know all, be all, understand all and succeed all the time and then get chopped to bits on the altar of the Governance Gods. That is tough and by feeling the pressure to succeed at all cost, we fail miserably. Mostly in the cost to self and the team. What is my greatest success? I failed and picked myself up to be better. And kept some modicum of sanity in the race to compulsory success.

namache
namache

Well said and very fitting for a new PM like I was once, I used to be a Tech lead and got into the shoes of a PM and went through a major failure (in terms of schedule, cost and quality) in delivering a large and complex 20+ member 12 man months project but learnt a lot from the failure and now am able to manage projects more effectively, on time and within budget with decent quality. I thank my management for the opportunity to fail! it helped and still helps.

mplishka
mplishka

Great post! Indeed the environment needs to be conducive and encouraging; such an environment is more rare than it should be.

michaelkariuki
michaelkariuki

This is an insightful article. Am a "first" time project manager. Indeed, I have had 'a few big mistakes' and this has heightened my sense of 'duty'. I continue learning on each step of the way. Michae

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

To get to this same point without jeopardizing a project?

schimeck
schimeck

I couldn't agree more. I used to teach project management at the post-secondary level. I told my bright-eyed, eager students that education teaches you what to do - experience teaches you what not to do! Unfortunately, many managers, a large number of whom cannot be classified as successful project managers themselves (remember the Peter Principle), refuse to give rookie PMs the chance to learn the ropes. The situation is made even worse by the fact that so many of today's PMOs are simply glorified auditors. Rather than acting as collaborators and coaches, PMOs often force project managers to spend most of their time on reporting, rather than allowing them to foster productive relationships with both clients and IT staff.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The PMBOK encourages the knowledgeable management of projects and the development of standardized process. The PMP encourages the recognition that being a professional project manager takes time and involves both experience and knowledge/training. It gives the client some comfort that the project manager has spent enough time to know what the words in the PMBOK mean in real life. What is being discussed here is the space between the words ... when the PMBOK doesn't quite cover it and the why behind the choices that the PMBOK embodies. Basically, when do you break the rules, why, and what do you do then? The PMBOK is a statement of the rules. If the project goes well, the PMBOK is all you need (shhh!). If the project goes off the rails, it's the project manager who brings it back (sometimes by applying the PMBOK, and sometimes by tossing out the PMBOK). The shh BTW, refers to the fact that one sentence in the PMBOK may involve many years of trial and error in real life (for example in managing people). There is no such thing as a profession where professional judgement does not play a part. I have a rule of thumb: The project will take exactly the amount of time the project will take ... No more, and no less. The trick to that is in knowing when the project is no longer the project which was intended, , when the project team's view of the intentioned project was mistaken and when the project is being wasteful. Each requires a different response. The PMBOK process gives me the best chance of it not happening, and tells me that one of those has happened, but it's my own experience that tells me which problem, how to fix it and guides me in the fixing. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

ttrimb1e
ttrimb1e

I think the key for the manager of a new Project Manager is to treat the experience the way you would teach your child to drive. Observe what they are doing. If they start to drift suggest a course correction. Let them make it. If they take too sharp a deviation, get in there and help hold the wheel, but not push them out of the driver's seat. Hopefully, they will learn why they started to fail and the project will survive.

locum
locum

I believe there is a way. Through management, mentorship and a series of projects and tasks that are controlled and predestined for failure. At a previous job about 10 years ago, we would hire new techs with their fancy new MCSE and CCNA certs I would give them a simple task to load the OS on a PC that I had already removed a hard drive or broken in some way and was often beyond their scope. I offered no help for that day and made them keep at it, sometimes for 4 to 6 hours. This was not meant to be cruel. It tested their knowledge, adaptation, improvisation, tenacity, composure under pressure etc... More importantly, it taught them to research using the phone (many of them were so phone shy) and internet as a powerful tool that they took for granted and playtime. It taught them to question their results, question tech support and "specialists," interrogate users like a detective and apply a sort of scientific method to their troubleshooting. I have also done this with many small projects that I give to new engineers, techs, and interns immediately after I hire them. These are simple ones, here and there, where I offer no resources, little direction and plenty of obstacles. After which we review, and usually laugh about where they went wrong, and analyze what went right. Many times, pleasantly surprised at what they developed along the way to circumvent an obstacle in order to yield a result. As a manager and executive you learn what their strong skills are and what needs more guidance. All the obstacles I put out are meant for failure. But it is a controlled failure. We will not lose weeks of labor, we will not lose millions of dollars, and believe it or not, no one died. Failures will teach you to; learn new skills, cope, adapt, develop leadership and get the job done. It makes you fearless without being fool hearty and allows you to analyze and account for some innate risk analysis. Whether it is engineering, product development, application and programming development, contract negotiation, marketing, sales etc.... You always learn from failure. It is better to set up small failures you can control than to find yourself at the helm of a half billion dollars project and run it aground as your first lesson in mortality. Many of our execs here agree that the only ones that don?t fail are the ones that don?t try enough. We would rather have a guy that sticks his neck out on a hundred projects and fail a few times than have a guy that will only take on a few select projects he knows he can do.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Martin Palmer stated one way ... assign an overseer (aka mentor or coach) who allows the pre-Project Manager to get into trouble then shows him/her how to avoid it and how to get out of it afterwards. The second method is to train the individual as an operational manager first. The theory being that as an operational (i.e. resource manager) they will learn how to deal with people. And since most of the problems a project manager deals with are people based they are far ahead of anyone just moving into the position. After that it becomes a matter of training them on risk and the other factors. Or to put it another way, they need to be experienced before they move up to Project Manager. In short, the organization has to accept that failure is part of the business and then be prepared to allow their project managers time to learn. Unfortunately, many organizations have a problem in defining what a failure is and confuse it with statistical variance. And many organizations have a problem with accepting that wisdom requires experience. And not all experience is positive. There is no free lunch. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

martin.palmer
martin.palmer

One of the things our PMO instituted was the role of a "Associate" PM. Anyone on a PM track would be required to be a APM for 4 projects. This means that you do most of the work but are coached by a very seasoned PM. When the project starts to get in trouble, the APM and the PM work, as a team, along with management, to get the project back on track. Sometimes the PM will allow the APM to see the troubles through, and, sometimes, they have to step in to make sure the company's investment is protected. The goal is to allow the APM to identify the issues and develop a plan. If the plan is weak, the PM coaches the APM through it. If the plan looks strong and the APM still can't get the project through, the PM steps in. In all, this is more of a guided experience as opposed to the Samuri "Sink or Swim" approach... This has worked very well for us and fits in with our corporate culture.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Jeopardy the case in all respects; then, now, always. Means you get to reformulate your question, and your premise, young man.

pete.winn
pete.winn

I'd have to agree with this, as I definately came into the profession a little cocky and sure of myself. Luckily I've had a boss over the past couple of years who has taken the time to point out my mistakes, help my learn about them and then support me in getting better. As such I'd have to say I'm in a much better place now than I would've been, damned unconfortable at times though!

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Why isn't this standard across the board? This should be the rule especially when unreasonable managers have a ZERO FAILURE policy. There really needs to be a PM Apprenticeship program. This would benefit both sides of the table.