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Stop! This project is too safe

Adeline Teoh ed.
August 16, 2013

We wrap children in cotton wool so they don’t hurt themselves, only to find that they no longer have the confidence to do anything for themselves any more. Is the same thing happening to projects? Is a fear of failure preventing success?

I had a friend who worked for many years at a charity call centre. The business was bringing in millions of dollars based on her scripts. I asked her the secret to writing a good script and she said it was “not worrying that you’re going to piss some people off”. A campaign without any complaints was a certain kind of failure, she explained. It meant that the team probably could have obtained more from the people who did donate but the script and the callers didn’t push hard enough.

I feel the same way when I look at some projects. Perhaps spooked by the large percentage of failures often quoted by reports such as the Standish Group’s CHAOS Report, project sponsors are playing it safe. Very safe. They are making sure everyone on the team has project management training. They are overestimating budgets and schedules and they are managing stakeholder expectations to the nth degree. In general, this is probably very good project practice.

However, although it’s probably wonderful when things go smoothly, textbook project management style, does anyone really learn anything? Out of our comfort zone we can test our mettle and engage our creative side. It’s no coincidence that the most advanced innovations are on the ‘bleeding edge’.

Another thing that my friend imparted was that the calling team had to support the script and understand that a knockback was not failure and a complaint was not failure. Having the space to fail allowed them to reach greater heights. Will you allow you project team the same privilege? Remove the cotton wool and have the confidence to try.

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.
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