Session Celebrating 10 years of failure, because you won’t succeed from the start.

Sarah Kobus, University of Amsterdam

I thought this looked interesting, not least because I have recently realised that getting everything perfect all the time is not a realistic or desirable goal. As if to demonstrate the truth of what she was saying, her co-presenter was ill, so Sarah had to present the session alone!

How good are we at learning from failures?

Everyone encounters failure. As an illustration Sarah spoke about replacing their Student Information System. The core issue encountered was not investing enough in changing the business processes to work well with the new system.

This was addressed, but without taking into account all the stakeholders. The needs of international students in particular weren’t considered enough. They discovered they needed to put more effort into identifying stakeholder expectations and making them more explicit.

While failure is bad, it’s impact is different depending on where it occurs. The project can be structured taking into account the impact of possible failures. More effort can be spent where the impact is high and less where it is low.

To make these decisions it is useful for the project to have principles, e.g. failure must not affect students. Define metrics for success; Key Performance Indicators. Sarah spoke about zones. A couple of examples are:

Expert zones.

Even an expert doesn’t know everything. Failure may hurt their credibility. The organisation needs to realise that experts get it wrong sometimes.

Innovation zones

Novel practice makes failure more likely. Can use safe to fail experiments to give feedback on what works. Innovation is inefficient. The slides have methods that work well in each zone.

Plan to limit the impact of failure.

  • Fail early to avoid spending time going the wrong way.
  • Fail cheaply - paper sketches rather than perfect analysis.
  • Define what success and failure mean. These need to be explicit to prevent all successes being optimised out.
  • Incremental improvements means it is easy to see where the issues are.

Evaluate failure

  • Did you learn - was there a positive outcome?
  • Was the cost contained?
  • Was the cost smaller than doing nothing, or conducting further analysis? Basically, is this failure something that was learned from, and was as cheap as possible?

Prepare for failure.

  • Regular project checkpoints - is the project delivering the expected returns?
  • If possible involve an objective outsider for perspective.
  • See what can be salvaged, e.g. a good team has been built or good relationships.
  • Identify who will be affected by the failure and plan to minimise damage.
  • Plan for closure and ensure people have new opportunities to go to.
  • The failure shouldn’t damage careers or people wont want to work on innovative/risky projects.


I thought this was a very positive perspective on running projects. I did ask about changing the culture of the organisation, which she admitted was more challenging, though she had made a start convincing the other managers to think in this way.