We learn from what we screw up
The title basically says it all. We go to school, we go to training classes, we join associations, we read books. We do everything good people should do to better ourselves in our profession. And, at the end of the day, we’ve learned some things that help us in our jobs.

But what do we really learn the most from? Growing up, did you learn more from what you were told to do or did you learn more from what you did wrong and had to pay the consequences for? I contend that the latter wins hands-down. It’s nice to learn things…it always is. But when we screw up really good and pay some sort of price for it…I contend that those are the times that we really really LEARN.

Example #1

Case in point…. I’ve mentioned many times how budgeting issues can torpedo projects and I’ve had at least one major project of mine go south due to budget handling issues. I’ve passed blame somewhat, but overall I’m the Project Manager and that’s my responsibility. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right? I firmly believe that. And that which does not get us fired makes us a better employee, a better server of our customer, a better business professional.

One major project completely shutdown for budget issues that could have been avoided – or least the blow could have been softened – with the appropriate action. I learned from that mistake and budget information is key to weekly discussions and project status reports that I have with and share with the customer now. It’s formally documented – both current budget and forecasted budget – and discussed formally every week. I’ve taken away the question marks and made it a joint effort with the customer. And believe me, the customer always appreciates the knowledge and would rather know the bad things and work through them with you then to waste money and cancel an engagement. I’m certain of that.

Example #2

A friend of mine worked on a major $50 million program for the US Department of Education. It was much more of a program than a project – it had a five-year run followed by an RFP process and another contract win. The company he worked for always won it because the program had grown to such a large size, it was so complex and had so many add-ons that no potential bidder could knock them – the incumbent – out of contention for the next proposal. They had become fat and overconfident.

Then one day a funny thing happened. They missed a major milestone deliverable. Then another. Then they improperly tested a change order resulting in delays and re-work. Suddenly, the government was not so enamored with their performance and certainly had lost confidence in their ability to deliver. They desperately needed to learn from this mistake, act aggressively and right the ship before it was too late – because at this point the project was within one year of coming up for re-bid.

My friend had responsibility on this program for all financials and budgeting, all change management, all change orders, disaster recovery and status reporting. Production was not in his scope, but he pulled his direct reports together and they resurrected the project schedule that my friend had put together 3 years prior in order to win the current contract and they updated it to what was happening today. What his team and he turned out was a project schedule encompassing nearly 4,000 tasks and the peer managers on the program were ready, willing and equipped to manage their specific portions of this mammoth project schedule.

His responsibility was to bring that all together and take over leading the weekly status meetings with the government managing everything to that schedule and producing meaningful alert reports from it both for internal purposes and for the customer to hold them accountable to. What resulted was a project that quickly got back on track, a customer whose satisfaction was raised beyond the level it had been previously and another huge contract win down the road. It wasn’t his doing only, but – the entire team took the initial action – and everyone pulled together and made it work. They learned from their overconfidence and mistakes before it was too late. And in this case too late could have meant losing their jobs in a year, if the contract was lost.


We’re human…we’re told what to do from the time we’re born till the time we die from someone or another. It doesn’t matter if we’re John Doe or Donald Trump…someone somewhere is instructing us off and on. We learn from those instructions. But I believe we also learn very fast – maybe faster – when we screw up and suffer the consequences. Sometimes we have to fail to perform better.