How to plan to avoid failure

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

Our default position is planning for success.

And that can seem the most constructive way to be!

We set our goals, and we plan how to achieve them.

But planning for failure is just as important as planning for success.

The world is complex; things don’t always go “to plan”; people don’t always act in predictable ways.

And we don’t always act in our own best interest (we all have the potential to self-sabotage…

So when you start a major project, it is always worth spending time on planning for if (when?) things go wrong.

Here are three things to think about.

1. Factors within your control

There is a very simple construct when it comes to risk: the risks you can control; and the risks you can only influence.

So what could go wrong, that you have direct control over?

(This is not an exhaustive list, but intended to get you thinking in the right way.)

  • Producing the wrong product to the wrong timetable

  • overspending on any budget

  • not involving or consulting people that need to be involved.

And what can you do mitigate these risks?

  • Make sure you agree, in writing ideally, exactly what is expected, in what form, and by when

  • putting proper processes in place to manage finances

  • thinking before you start of who might need to be consulted, then agreeing that with the person commissioning the project.

Take some time to consider what risks you have control over, and what you can do to mitigate them.

And then take action!

2. Factors outside your control

This is slightly more complicated.

The Government could change; the CEO might move on; budgets might be drastically cut.

All of these things could massively affect your project - but none of these can you control.

So the way to plan around these is to create an awareness of these possible risks, and identify the implications for your project.

There could be thousands of these, so concentrate on the most likely, or the most serious.

And once you’ve identified the implications of each one, think about whether there is anything you can do to mitigate this risk, through influence.

For example, making sure that more than one senior stakeholder supports your project could be very helpful in the case of a change of personnel, or budget cuts.

The common thread will often be communication:

  • communication in advance, to get as much buy-in as possible;

  • and communication during the process to make sure that your support continues, despite any changes during the process.

In the project management world, this Risk Management process is vitally important - there is often a spreadsheet with all the risks on it, rated according to severity of consequence or likelihood. These will be monitored regularly throughout the project.

You may not need to get this formal about it, but any time spent thinking about risks before you start is never wasted…

3. Internal factors

Human beings are complicated - and you are no exception.

There will have been times when you sabotaged yourself: finding yourself in the supermarket chocolate aisle when you’re trying to eat healthily; or continually “forgetting” your gym kit.

The best way to deal with the possibility of self-sabotage is to plan for it.

The question to ask yourself is: “knowing myself better than anyone else, what is the most likely way I will self-sabotage in this situation?”.

Give yourself time and space to think about this question.

Book some time in a meeting room; go to a café; find some space alone - and really think about it.

Consider your past form - what common threads of self-sabotage can you identify?

Where do you notice that you are resisting or resenting something?

That will often be an area where you sabotage.

Don’t expect to get the answer instantly - these questions sometime need a bit of time to percolate.

But within a week, make sure you identify at least one way (and more if possible) that you could self-sabotage.

And then plan to avoid this!

  • If you often leave th