Does the fear of failure limit strategic success?

A funny illustration of a businessman catching a flying businesswoman as a trapeze artist.

A fear of personal failure can hold us back from doing the things we need to do to succeed. Most of us have felt that at some time in our lives.  We find ways to reduce the fear so we can act.

Organisations can impose a fear of failure too. Here are 3 ways they do that:

  1. When there is no clear path to generate change, employees hesitate to propose new ideas or challenge existing norms. That limits the organisation’s ability to add value for customers.
  2. When organisations punish failure severely, people hide problems, keep quiet about concerns and falsify progress reports.  A series of small problems becomes a big crisis. 
  3. When organisations are very risk-averse they endlessly analyse the risks of new initiatives and micromanage activity.  That stifles initiative and growth and drives good people away.

Projects and strategic initiatives can be risky.  Many projects fail. Most organisations should do fewer projects and do them better.  Choose projects well and make sure they align to strategy.  Plan them well, put good governance in place, manage risks and ensure that deliverables and benefits stay on track. Don’t forget, however, that project success often depends on the ability to take risks, explore new opportunities, and adapt to changing circumstances.  You are doing something you haven’t done before so unexpected things will happen. Prepare for that if you want to succeed.

How does an organisation face fear of failure and turn it into success?

Embrace uncertainty as a guaranteed element of change and plan accordingly. Project success needs to be planned. Here are 5 ways to actively seek success while reducing fear of failure:

  1. Form a partnership between the Project/Programme Manager and the Project Sponsor with a very clear idea of what success looks like and what is necessary to achieve it – principles, values, relationships and outcomes – not just deliverables.
  2. Recognise the likelihood of a range of outcomes and plan responses to them. Don’t just create a risk register. Identify multiple outcomes and responses and cost them to create an itemised risk budget. As risks abate or are eliminated, reduce the risk budget. Discuss changes at every Project Board/Steering Group meeting.
  3. Trace requirements to business need and cost them in a granular way if possible. If business needs change, items can be descoped quickly with a clear understanding of the consequences and the related costs. Don’t carry project deadweight.
  4. Engage properly with all your key stakeholders instead of just telling them what you plan to do.  That way they become active partners in your project and you get early warning of factors that may affect project success and a chance to respond in a timely way.
  5. Consider adding an independent Strategic Success Advisor to your Project Board.

Organisations rightly seek expert advice on risk management, cybersecurity, privacy and project assurance but those are all interventions to reduce risk.  They address fear of failure.

Why not hire someone to help ensure success? Isn’t that what you really want?

Phil Guerin, Consultant/Director, Hague Consulting Ltd. © Hague Consulting Ltd 2023

Follow on LinkedIn