Monday, April 19, 2010

No More Fear of Failure...

(This was originally posted on Horn Group's Brass Tacks)

Last week I went to the first FAILfaire NYC, organized by I was first turned on to the event when I saw a tweet about it from another project manager that I’m connected with through the “Project Managers on Twitter” (#PMOT) group. Now, failure is nothing new to project managers, any quick skim through the #PMOT feed on a given day will show blog posts about “10 top ways to fail at an IT project”, or “5 ways to fail as a project manager”. Talking about common mistakes and lessons learned from them is something project managers try to do on a regular basis. But, I have never seen an event where people will submit their project failure stories in order to be able to stand in front of a large group of people and talk about how they screwed up. What an amazing idea!

Too often people are afraid to talk about their mistakes, both professional and personal. The problem here is that when we don't talk about them, we don't learn from them, we forget how they happened and then of course we go back and repeat them. This can be a dangerous and expensive habit when it comes to software and interactive projects. And, as we all learned from the presentations at FAILfaire, just as bad with "Information Technology for Development" projects.

What were the lessons learned from the projects presented at FAILfaire? Here's the main ones that I took from the event:

  1. A great idea and great branding will not necessarily lead to a great project. Plenty of time needs to be spent planning out all steps of the project from initiation to final execution, trying to brainstorm all possible bumps along the road and how they will be handled.
  2. Pay attention to early warning signs. The example from the project presented was where family members warned "not to give up your day job" and there was no funding offered from friends/family or charitable organizations. Regardless, the project forged on as planned.
  3. The people are just as critical as the technology and process. You might have an amazing idea but without a team of qualified people that is 100% motivated about the project, the challenges could be too much to bear.
  4. Make sure to do enough market research. In this specific case presented, plenty of time and resources were spent designing and producing an LED lamp that was already more cheaply made and available in the local area.
  5. Especially when dealing with developing nations, make sure to think through the technology challenges as fully as possible. The level of technology use and infrastructure is nowhere near what we are lucky enough to have here in the U.S.
  6. Make sure you have complete buy-in from your audience. If you need a crowd of people (and in one of the cases presented, children) willing to participate make sure they have incentive and no significant barriers to participation.

I think the best idea that came from the event is the extendability of it. The organizers mentioned more than once that the logo was free to reuse and they would love to see more FAILfaires sprout up in other cities and with other industries. And if done well like it was last week in New York, I think this could be a huge success. The keys to a successful FAILfaire are:

  1. Make sure the environment is comfortable and conducive to open conversation (at the NYC event the alcohol was flowing, while the sunset came in all around the stunning penthouse location).
  2. Fingers should not be pointed at any time during the event. This is not a time to lay blame, but learn from mistakes that anyone can make.
  3. Set clear ground rules early about what is on and off the record, especially when participants are coming from different organizations and industries. In the age of live tweet streams and blogging (this post is even on the late end), try to ensure that any sensitive information is either left out entirely or clearly declared off the record.

I already have a couple of ideas for how I'd like to see FAILfaire spread, and I hope the 60+ people in attendance that night also help start more events in their own circles, helping to bring out the failures from under the rug so that we can all learn from them.

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