Failure…According to Plan

Written by lewsauder

March 11, 2013


We should use failure strategically

It’s been said that we get what we measure.  That can be either good news or bad.  If a consulting sales team is measured strictly on the sales revenue they bring in, you may get some sales people who go out and sell a lot of services.  Whether they sell services that the firm can actually deliver is another issue.

We have a vision of success and how we will measure it.  Then we drive people towards that vision.  When we finally get to the finish line, the focus is on the measurement of success rather than what we really accomplished. We could experience failure and not really know it.

For example…

On time on budget

Consulting is generally a project-based industry.  And the consulting firm is usually on the hook for delivery of the project.  The standard measure of success in project completion is completing it on the scheduled date and within the estimated budget.

Few projects finish within these parameters.  (More are reported on resumes than actually ever existed.)  When a project does finish on time and on budget, the team celebrates but rarely looks back to ask, “What did we accomplish?”  It’s the equivalent of saying “We’re going on vacation.  We have $1,000 dollars to spend and have to be back by Saturday”.  So we make it back home and have spent only $975.  We’re on time and under budget.  Never mind that we went to the Grand Canyon but we were supposed to go to Disney World.

On time and on budget is worthless if we didn’t accomplish something for the business user to use.

Avoiding Failure by Following Process

Many organizations, burned by things going wrong when ‘rebels’ go off on their own, establish processes and procedures – big words for rules – to make sure everyone works in lockstep.  Consistency can be good.  But sometimes process gets in the way of progress.

I once worked for a client that had a new project management office (PMO).  They had developed a process for managing all of their projects.  It was an intricate process that required certain documents to be completed and milestone reviews by various participants at different points throughout the project.

We completed the project on schedule, within budget and, more importantly, to the business unit’s satisfaction.  We missed completing a project closure document.  As a result, we received a poor score from the client’s PMO.  The client did not hire us for additional business.

The indication was if the business had not been satisfied, but the proper document had been filed, we would have obtained future business from that client.

Internal Politics

Sometimes our hands are tied due to the unwritten political rules.  It would be easy for me just to go to Bob’s office and ask him to sign off on a request.  The problem is, Dave reports to Bob.  If he found out you went over his head to Bob, there would be hell to pay.

So, instead of solving a problem right away, we wait three days for Dave to get home from vacation and catch up on meetings, emails, piled up work, etc.  Our project is unnecessarily delayed, but at least we didn’t break any unwritten political rules.

That’s how we’ve always done it.

Old habits die hard.  At one client, they had a contract approval process that required several signatures and even re-signatures by the same people after other people had signed off after them.

See my related post: How I’ve Learned to Love Failing

A committee was established to simplify and streamline the process.  Unfortunately, every person on the committee had been with the company for no less than fifteen years.  With no new blood on the committee, and the old process ingrained in their heads, the newly designed process was not significantly different or streamlined from the old process.  They just couldn’t see it in any different way.

What we measure has a significant impact on how successful we are.  I know many people who would like to lose weight.  Do they want to be thinner or healthier?  If thinness implies healthy, my father was at his healthiest on the day he died.

Be careful what you measure, you just might get it.

What failures have caused you to succeed in the past?

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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  1. How To Be Successful in Consulting by Failing | Consulting 101 - […] See my related post: Failure…According to Plan […]

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