AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

How to deal with project mistakes

Adeline Teoh ed.
December 8, 2015

The project shuddered to a standstill. He’d made a million-dollar mistake. He offered his resignation. The project manager refused. “Why would I get rid of a person who has made such a valuable mistake?” asked the project manager. “It can take years to learn what you’ve just learnt. You’re now the best person to lead this segment of the recovery.”

If only this mature outlook were more common in the project management world! For those wondering if this scenario is real, it is. A friend recounted it to me when we were talking about knowledge management practices. He said it was just as important to record the reaction to and recovery of mistakes in lessons learnt documents as it was to discuss ‘what we might’ve done differently’.

I won’t pretend this is easy to do. In many professions, in fact, mistakes that have great impacts on the results of the practice often result in people being struck off registers and/or legally destroyed through adverse court actions or prison sentences. Honest mistakes are not the same as deliberate malpractice, however, and how an organisation handles an accident that has adverse effects leaves a lot to be desired.

I recently read an article about a nurse who had administered the wrong dosage of a treatment to a baby in her care. The baby died a few days later, though it is uncertain how much the dosage error contributed. For 25 years this nurse had had a mistake-free career (admirable in itself) but following her mistake, which she logged herself, she was fired and made to deal with the trauma herself. Some months later she took her own life.

“The fact is, mistakes are universal and inevitable. It is a matter of knowing how to use these mistakes as lessons for future prevention,” the article posits. The hospital’s actions punished honesty and transparency and made pretty damn sure future mistakes would be covered up and therefore harder to prevent. It’s not the institution’s fault though, really, it’s part of the culture of medicine.

Fortunately, project managers do not have such a direct impact on people’s lives, so we have a chance to step back and really work on what to do when someone makes a mistake. What do you do with people who admit mistakes?

Author avatar
Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
Read more