The day started off well enough.  John had been working for the past six months with members from the county planning board on a new by-pass project.  Although he had to travel on work for another project and took a weeks vacation, he’d made a point to get back to members whenever questions arose on the by-pass project.  He thought he had their support locked-down in advance of the planning board approval meeting.


As John pulled into the parking lot at the firm’s office after a resounding defeat of the by-pass project at today’s county planning board, he felt crushed.  A lot of time had been invested in the project and all of it went right out the window.  This was bad.  But what John felt was worse were the two additional clients he had with projects pending planning board approval.

How was he going to assure them he could arrange planning board approval when he’d just lost support for the by-pass project?  More importantly, how was he going to find the strength to simply show up to the office and explain the loss to the firm’s senior partners?  

Keep Your Eyes Forward and Keep Moving

Failure comes in many flavors and anyone involved in professional level work will experience it at some point.  When it happens each person has two real choices:  (1) fall into a spiral of defeat and never recover, or (2) reflect on the failure, identify the patterns or lessons that led to it, keep your vision pointed forward, and move onwards.

In some circles this is called ‘resilience’: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.  Failure happens to everyone.  What will benefit you is to have a plan for how to deal with it when it happens. 

Here are five elements to consider before you experience failure:

Risk Assessment.  Risk is inherent in every project and cannot be completely eliminated.  Engineers and project managers at the top of their game know this and conduct a thorough risk assessment at the front end of each project.  This drill illuminates what might go wrong so mitigation plans can be put in place.  

The act of simply identifying what might go wrong will put in place inside of us an additional level of confidence. Knowing what could happen, and that we’ve considered how to deal with it, gives us a subconscious boost that can help us operate with strength.

Action Question: Have you analyzed the risks in the projects you’re working on?

Relationships.  Relationship development and maintenance is vital to professional fulfillment and success.  It’s also critical to bouncing back after a failure.  If you’ve done your work up front and built meaningful, supportive professional relationships you will have a support network that can assist you put the pieces back together again.  

Every professional will experience a setback in a project.  Through strong relationships you will have the social support necessary to build the confidence to analyze what happened and move forward.  Each of us is human and as such, each of us will fail.  Strong, meaningful relationships are those in which we are allowed to be human without excuses.  

Action Question: How many of these relationships do you have in your professional network?

Realism.  Most people are horrible at assessing future outcomes.  It’s not that we lack the ability to analyze or use sound engineering judgment.  It’s the fact that we are each affected by biased thinking.  Because of this, we tend to perceive what we want to perceive and we tend to make overconfident predictions about a future, uncertain outcome.

The best counter to these biases and gaining a sense of realism is to have a team – or at least one other person – you can rely on to shoot holes in your plan or thoughts.  Often times an outside perspective on an issue will provide the separation necessary to “see the forest for the trees”.

Action Question:  Who do you have in your circles that can help you to gain perspective, realism, on your challenging projects?

Root-Cause Analysis.  As painful as failure is, it’s compounded if you don’t run a root-cause analysis to figure out what went wrong.  Why do you think safety boards are convened after every accident at a construction site?  Or the NTSB is called in after an aircraft incident?  The failure situation was bad, however, there is good that come from it if an assessment is made to understand why it happened.

In fact, the most effective root-cause analysis tool you can implement comes from six-sigma and is known as the “5 Whys”.  As the name implies, you repeatedly ask the question “why” and in so doing, peel away the layers of symptoms that can lead to the root cause.

Action Question:  What was the last project failure you experienced? Have you performed a root-cause analysis?  If not, why?

Recovery.  Give yourself time to recover from the failure.  Engineers are a proud, professional tribe that can suffer significantly from setbacks or failures.  It’s important to allow yourself some space to accept that the situation occurred so you can move forward in a constructive manner.  Negative self-talk or self-inflicted abuse won’t make the situation any better and will only make it worse.

Action Question:  Who is your #1 supporter? Talk with them now to gain their support of you so they’re there in case you experience a project failure.

Failure isn’t a fun topic to discuss, but like risk it can’t be completely eliminated from the range of potential outcomes.  The best anyone can do is to have the mental tool kit to take a blow, figure out what happened, learn from it, and move forward.

“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” – Coco Chanel

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