We have all encountered situations akin to the one portrayed in our title. Often unintentionally and without the ability to influence the outcome, we embark on endeavors filled with enthusiasm, only to discover that the puzzle pieces fail to align seamlessly.
The pieces, diverse in size, color, and origin, resemble fragments from disparate puzzles. Despite our tireless efforts to inspire, guide, and communicate, creating a shared landscape appears insurmountable. As the deadline looms closer, a lump forms in our throat and the search for a harmonious solution seems elusive.
The first thought is that it wasn’t supposed to happen like this—this was supposed to succeed! At some point, we have to admit to ourselves that finding common ground is impossible because there are as many agendas as there are participants in the group.
In these moments, we come face-to-face with the realization that the envisioned success was not meant to materialize.
Reputation is the currency of the project world
In the project world, failure is not the same as a New Year’s resolution that nearly 90% of people fail to keep (Wiseman 2007). It’s not the same as a late-night promise to get in shape for summer, which begins as soon as the sun rises.
In the project world, failure can mean that the funding granted to a project needs to be repaid. This, in turn, can shake the entire organization, placing not only our own jobs but also the livelihoods of our colleagues at risk. Whether we intended it or not, the financial aspect becomes paramount as it directly impacts cash flow.
Simultaneously, a failed project can become an ugly and ragged feather in the organization’s Tyrolean hat because reputation is the currency of the project world. The better the reputation, the more prestigious partners an organization can attract. And the more prestigious partners an organization attracts, the easier it is to secure funding for future projects.
It depends on what we do with the knowledge
Now, let’s redirect our focus away from our immediate circumstances. When we find ourselves standing on shaky ground, reason becomes our guiding light. In the world of projects, even failure can be transformed into triumph if we approach it with the right mindset. It all boils down to perspective.
Projects in the universities of applied sciences often revolve around pioneering something entirely new. Their purpose is to uncover how things work, paving the way for others to further develop the idea. In this context, projects rarely yield permanent outcomes.
This is why failure resembles a two-sided coin, capable of being both beneficial and detrimental. Ultimately, everything hinges on the knowledge derived from the project and how that knowledge is harnessed.
If we can identify and comprehend the reasons behind its failure, valuable new insights are born, providing a learning opportunity for others in the future. On the contrary, true failure would involve sweeping information under the rug and assigning blame.
It is undeniable that delving into the past and critically examining our own mistakes can be arduous. However, that’s precisely why it’s essential. The intention is to safeguard future individuals from treading the same minefield that once tripped us up.
Approaching the Right Mindset
Failures and mistakes are an inherent part of the process when we dare to embark on unexplored paths. Nevertheless, when organizations adopt a healthy approach to handling disappointments, failures can become catalysts for learning and growth (Birkinshaw & Haas 2016).
As noted by the fictional character Dick Diver in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender Is the Night” (1934), failure should never be mistaken for ultimate defeat. Even when it lingers as the most painful memory of our careers, the knowledge derived from failure can prove immensely beneficial.
Hence, instead of concealing failures, organizations should openly share them, avoiding the detrimental mistake of shooting the messenger or burying bad news (Birkinshaw & Haas 2016). This culture of shared setbacks not only diminishes the risk of future failures but also fosters trust within the workplace—an indispensable foundation for a thriving organizational culture.
Furthermore, it serves as inspiration for others to venture into uncharted territory, encouraging innovation and the exploration of riskier ideas.
Birkinshaw, J., & Haas, M. (2016). Increase your return on failure. Harvard Business Review.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1934). Tender is the night. Charles Scribner’s Sons
Wiseman, R. (2007). Quirkology: How We Discover Big Truths in Small Things. Pan Macmillan.