It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      August 2009 Full Moon Edition      


Calculated Failure

Calculated failure can be a critical element for driving organizational change and assuring the right, logical, common sense course of action is taken. It is an underutilized but necessary strategy, especially in organizations that treat their limited resources as if they are unlimited.  Program and project managers are often shocked when I instruct them to do this in training classes. But every system should have calculated failure points.

Calculated failure is controllable failure.

For example, in an electrical system fuses and circuit breakers serve as calculated failure points. The fuse protects the system and is the trigger point for system evaluation to assess the cause of the failure.  Automobiles have calculated failure points or crumple zones to control the energy and lessen the impact during a crash.  If you don’t make calculated decisions about failure points in a system, then failure is subject to happen haphazardly or in unanticipated areas. 

One client’s circumstance.

I once had a client at a Fortune 100 company whose program was overworked and she wanted to prioritize all of her projects. Her employees had been working sixty-plus hours per week for almost a year, with no relief in sight. When she presented her plan to her leadership team, they told her there was no need to prioritize the work of her program because her organization had not missed any deadlines. That is, she had never blown a fuse. I advised her to create a strategy of calculated failure points to protect her organization for the long term.

As the program manager she is responsible for the long-term viability of the program, not just the short-term deadlines. At the pace she was working her team it was only a matter of time before one of her key program personnel would quit or get sick, resulting in an uncalculated failure with significant repercussions beyond her control. (Uncontrollable Failure).  We should never forget that the most capable and talented people on the team have the greatest opportunity to transfer out of the organization or leave the company.

What are your calculated failure points? 

If you don’t like the term calculated failure then use fail safe points.  One of the advantages of using a stage gate process in project management is because if properly implemented it provides the opportunity to assess what is not right and stop the process until it is addressed. The goal of calculated failure is the same... to assess and fix what is not right, not just for the specific failure but the system as a whole. 

In a perfect world calculated failure may not be necessary, but unfortunately, we must succeed in a world where the “do more with less mentality” has created an environment where expectatations and promises are often more than can be realistically achieved.  Logic should prevail to bring circumstances back to reality, but when sound logic is ignored the strategy of calculated failure is a viable one.

Adapted from The Handbook of Program Management

Copyright 2009 SEBA Solutions Inc.

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