“…there’s no success like failure, and a failure’s no success at all.”

No matter how many times I read this line, or heard them sung by Bob Dylan from his song “Love Minus Zero, No Limit,” I think of projects that have, by any standard measure of project management, been massive failures,  and yet over the years have turned out to be raging successes. I’m thinking specifically of  projects such as the Sydney Opera House, the Hubble Telescope, and Boston’s Big Dig. In some ways, these projects were just too big and too important to fail regardless of the time it took or what they cost. They just had to get done.


I just read a short article by Michael Dean of Podio (part of Citrix) who highlighted quite a few “budget busting” projects in a cool graphic which I include here. You can also go here to read the full article.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 3.35.14 PM

Take  the Sydney Opera House for example. That project was a whopping 1,400% (or so) over budget. The architect resigned in disgrace midway through the project vowing never to return to Australia again so frustrated was he by the Sydneysiders he was reporting to. And yet, this iconic structure defines a country.

No visit to Australia is complete without visiting it, walking around it’s massive exterior, or floating by it as it juts out on Benalong Point (the name of the aboriginal they kicked off the land to build it) into Sydney Harbor. It’s a magnificent piece of work enjoyed by millions through the years (although, truth be told, I did find my seat to be a little uncomfortable during a performance there!).

Anyway, all this has me thinking that perhaps we spend too much time agonizing over a few bucks here, and a few months there. Maybe our definition of “project failure” needs to be adjusted some.

Maybe we even need to stop dwelling on project failure so much and start obsessing with our successes. I’m not sure what that would do for the likes of Standish, Gartner, Forrester and others who make so much hay (and money) talking about project failure, but it might be good to take a different perspective every once in a while.

What’s your take? Have you had a massive failure that actually worked out great in the end?

btw: If you’re a Bob Dylan fan, here’s an old clip I found on YouTube of him signing this great old classic.

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5 thoughts on ““…there’s no success like failure, and a failure’s no success at all.”

  1. I have been touting this same Dylan line in my project recovery workshops for 10 years now. It neatly states the conundrum we must confront as we, as a profession, deal with our failures.

    There is one major thing we should derive from our failures. And that is, how to avoid such failures next time. Of course there are other things too but I think that is the major positive we could derive. I also agree that we don’t celebrate our successes the way we should. I think there is a tendency to say “whew! made through that one!” and then move on. This is a mistake.

    In short, while “dwelling” on our failures is a mistake, ignoring them or minimizing them is an even bigger mistake. We should learn everything we can from them and work to prevent these disasters in the future.

  2. Project failure have many perspectives. The Sydney Opera House failed from the cost and time perspective and succeeded on achieving the goals, and that is usual. The trick is to identify how the cost difference is absorbed. Check the Thoria (satellite telephone project) which failed from the cost perspective and succeeded to achieve the goals and someone absorbed the huge loss. On the other hand, the return of such projects was not correctly estimated at inception.

    Would you start any such projects if you knew what the results will be? I won’t.

  3. If we thoroughly analyze failed projects (considering triple constraints), it can be found in most of the cases the projects were planned to fail, or in other words projects seems to have failed because many critical factors were overlooked at the initiating & planning phases – in the enthusiasm to get the project authorized and going.
    At the same time all the projects can not be viewed just from the schedule and budget perspective. I think the most critical factor which defines ultimate success is the long term sustainability of project outcome and / or public good.

    I visited “TAJ MAHAL” (One of the 7 wounder of the world). I marveled at the beauty of the monument. The original schedule is unknown. It is said that the budget was overshoot many folds, ultimately cost more than 3 million rupees – more than 360 years ago. The emperor increased taxes to complete the structure – and what the structure is all about – its a mausoleum built in memory of the emperor’s beautiful wife. I am sure any of these ancient or very old structures will have tails of exploitation. In emperor’s view it would have been a success. Its and engineering marvel. But is it worth to build a mausoleum spending such huge sum of money and putting citizens to hardships. In my humble opinion, certainly not. But what is today’s scenario. Millions of people visit this monument every year – most popular tourist destination in India. Its a livelihood for large number of people. Not knowing the suffering of emperor’s subjects, I think its a successful today as it serves public good and is sustainable. All the monuments that we see today has similar stories to tell.

  4. LeRoy,

    Thanks for an outstanding post. For years, we’ve been touting long-term thinking in project management and a better definition of project success. Our first book, Green Project Management, which won the Cleland Award for Literature from PMI, isn’t always well-received by project managers who (and you can’t blame us) are necessarily short-term focused.

    Our next book, “Sustainability in Projects, Programs, and Portfolios”, recognizes that we needed to ‘kick it up a notch’, and now we’re focused on the Portfolio/Enterprise level because ironically, these folks seem to have a better grip on long-term success and Triple Bottom Line thinking.

    We’re actually using the Sydney Opera House as a case to demonstrate this in one of our new models to demonstrate “Project Success” versus “Project Management Success”. The Opera House, as you say, was not a Project Management Success, but has become an icon of Australia, making it a long-term Project success despite failing to meet its budget.

    On the opposite side of the coin, we have the Keurig single-serve coffeemaker which was a Project Management and financial success, but in the long term, the product (or rather a by-product) of this project’s steady-state outcome is 13+ billion K-cups(R) in landfills – – not exactly in line with the vision/mission of Green Mountain Coffee, the (theoretically) sustainably-minded parent company of Keurig.

    So, lots of food for thought here, thanks again!

    Rich Maltzman, PMP