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 things to the last minute and then have to rush them, define some really concrete deadlines for part-way through the process, and agree them with someone;

  • if you resent detail and accuracy, and as a result often deliver products with errors in them, ask someone to review the first draft with you to help you catch these errors;

  • if you don’t like having meetings, and then are unlikely to consult others sufficiently, find other ways of doing it: online surveys; emails; or phone calls. Or ask someone for help, who does enjoy that style of work.

Three common threads here: external accountability; external support; and delegation.

One you know where the problems of self-sabotage might occur, you can employ one or more of these techniques to make sure they don’t.

For example, I used to leave it too late to prepare for meetings, which meant I arrived rushed and flustered - so I scheduled each meeting 10 minutes earlier in my calendar to build in meeting preparation time. This external accountability (to my calendar) solved the problem.

So there you have three ways to plan to avoid failure.

Good luck!


Things to do and consider

  1. Consider your patterns of self-sabotage. When you look back across your work, are there any common threads you can identify? What actions can you take now to mitigate these patterns? Use the three tools of external accountability, external support, and delegation to plan these, and take action!

p.s. for help with planning for success with your career, get in touch: