Project Practitioners > How to learn from failures

How to learn from failures

By Alfonso Bucero

Did you fail any time as a project manager? Are you able to recognize your failures?

Most of times I see my failures as a gift because they often set me up for a breakthrough. What benefits can be derived in defeat or setbacks? I can think of some valuable lessons failure gives us:

  1. Failure is a great teacher
  2. It builds your character, projects are not easy, life is not easy
  3. It motivates you
  4. It helps you to appreciate when you are successful

1. Failure is a great teacher

Defeat is a great teacher. In my case to be a winner I was a loser before. Let me give you an example. I’m a shy guy but I had very clear in my mind that, as a project manager, I’d need to talk in front of the people because multiple reasons (reporting, negotiating, selling, presenting, speaking on public) but also I needed to do it in Spanish and English even when English is not my mother language.

I was conscious about I could not do it perfectly but I was convinced that at least I needed to try it. I failed many times but I used my courage, my enthusiasm and passion to improve. I worked hard, I practiced and I’m still practicing. I always try my best. In every presentation I deliver I try to do my best, I try to share my thoughts from my heart. That’s my best practice, master the fundamentals, and always try to do your best in everything you do as a project professional, knowing that sometimes you will fail because failure is in the path to mastery. Use your passion, persistence and patience.

I really enjoy speaking in front of the audience but I failed at the beginning depending on the audience. When I tried to be invited to deliver a project management speech on the early 1990’s some of them turned me down as too young or too inexperienced. Sometimes it was frustrating when I submitted some papers for professional Congresses and I was refused, but I knew I was learning to know what I needed to know to be a known project management speaker.

Over the years I was accepted to present at international Congresses, PMI Chapter Events and Conferences worldwide. Now I still have a long way of learning to master public speaking but at least I feel more comfortable. I have been very persistent since 1993 submitting papers and presentations in a yearly basis. Since the last 14 years I was accepted, and at every presentation I did I learned a lot, and enjoyed a lot.

I realized that if you fail and give up, you will never get up. But if you learn the lessons of failure and keep trying to do your best, the rewards will come, and sometimes not just in the approval of others but in the fulfillment of knowing that you are making the most of every day allotted to you.

 2. It builds your character

What does not destroy you can make you stronger, more focused, more creative, and more determined to pursue your dreams, converting them into your reality. We are talking about the basics of project management. You may be in rush to succeed, and there is nothing wrong with that, but patience is a virtue too, and failure certainly will develop that trait in you.

I started my own company on 2002, after working in several multinational organizations for more than twenty years as a project manager. My new project was to create a PM Services company but the paradigm for me was different than before. I had no team, I was alone, I needed to create my PM services (training and consulting services) and needed to sell them and deliver it. I needed to adapt my habitudes as a project manager, from managing the assigned project in my previous companies, to being creative and looking for new projects to find my customers.

That situation obliged me to cultivate my persistence and my patience. I never lost my enthusiasm because they were difficult times. After six months I won my first project with a customer and that success allowed me to hire a new person to help me. That person sold some more services and I needed to hire another consultant. I have been 12 years with my own company now and I'm still on business.

I cannot say that I always was successful, I experienced up and downs, however I never gave up and I survived. I believe in my profession and that’s I transmit to my customers when managing projects, delivering consulting or training project managers and executives. I always had some income to survive. I’m not rich but I survived so far during 12 years now. Dealing with my business, as a project manager, has endured me and I believe I’m better prepared now to deal with my project business.  The failures I found in my professional path have built my character.

3. It motivates you

We can choose to respond to loss or failure by despairing and giving up, or we can let the loss or failure to serve as a learning experience and motivation to do better. One of the keys to success in your work, as a project manager, is practice. I think of practice as failing toward success.

Let me give you an example, I failed two times before passing the PMP exam but it was a great process of personal and professional learning for me and it motivated me a lot. The first time I took the exam without any study, just believing that I had enough knowledge to pass and I failed. However I was a project manager working for a multinational organization, and I was committed to get the PMP certification. Then I looked for material to study but my company did not support my registration in any training firm. So, as I was managing a project outside home I tried to study in my own every day after 11:00pm. I was exhausted and the second time I took the PMP exam I failed again, but I learned a lot during the process, and I had the opportunity to read several project management books. Instead of giving up I tried to analyze what was my mistake. After analyzing the facts and details from the previous times I discovered several things:

  • I had not understood the PMI philosophy
  • I did not spend enough time studying the material
  • I did not practice enough questions

I took some time off and after three weeks of study I passed the PMP exam and got my PMP. In my case failures motivated me to continue because I wanted to get my certification.

4. It helps you to appreciate when you are successful

After failing two times on passing the PMP exam I appreciated my success and I understood how to proceed if I need to obtain other professional certification. In fact, the harder you have to work to achieve a goal, the more you will appreciate it. How many times have you looked back from a big victory and thought how sweet it was to finally triumph after you long struggle?

There is a known sentence: “The tougher the climb, the better the view at the top”. One of the things that I learned in my professional life is that success may not come without pain. When you put your whole heart into achieving a goal and you go through great pain and suffering along the way, the feeling of achievement once you break through is so incredible that you just want to build on it. I believe in we celebrate tough victories not because we survived the effort but because our nature is to keep growing and seeking even higher levels of fulfillment.

We always will fail because we are human beings. We will fall because the path is rough. But our failures are part of the gift of life, so learn from you failures and never give up as a project manager.  

 Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI Fellow

BUCERO PM Consulting

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

As a testimonial to the efficacy of Alfonso's comments, I invite you to watch a short video of Alfonso at - Alfonso Bucero - project manager extraordinaire.

In 2010, the year Alfonso Bucero of BUCERO PM Consulting received the Distinguished Contribution Award from the Project Management Institute, he made this presentation at the Global Congress in Washington DC. Experience his humor and insights as he expresses his views, demonstrates how he operates as a complete project manager, shares his humanity, and demonstrates how he recovers from failures.

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy

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