Project Management Guidelines (Part 1) - What We Can Learn From Project Failures

Annalena Simonis, Thursday 27 May 2021 | Reading time: 5 min.

What should you do when something doesn't work out as planned? Don’t worry, many smart minds before you have already thought about failure and came up with practical guidelines. Find out what you can learn from Murphy, Parkinson and others in our new blog series.

Projects are becoming increasingly complex. This may be due to the project itself, which is becoming more complex because of the multitude of parameters it contains. Another reason can be the influence of the project environment or a high number of stakeholders. A good project manager knows that some developments are out of their control. However, it is the way you react in such situations that can make the difference. When unexpected events occur, it is natural to feel stressed. The only way to relieve that stress is to remain calm about the situation and take action to keep the situation under control.

In this article, we present 8 project management guidelines that help you deal with failures. These popular “laws” from literature, business and research can help you deal more positively in your everyday work with situations in which not everything goes according to plan. We will show you how you can learn a lesson or two from these guidelines that will have a positive impact on your projects.


1. Lakein's Law: "Failing to plan is planning to fail."

Alan Lakein is an influential U.S. self-help author who focuses on personal time management. Lakein is a proponent of prioritizing one's tasks by dividing them into A, B, and C priorities in order to get the most important things done first. The law was originally stated as, "By failing to plan, you will gain very little, if any, time, and by failing to plan, you will almost certainly fail...." This leads to a paradoxical conclusion: precisely because we lack the time to plan, we should take the time to plan. With this, the author takes the view that, especially at the beginning of a project, one should not simply jump into it and warns against a "Just Do It" mentality. Project work is preceded by project planning, which is still too often interpreted as doing nothing and thus, unimportant.


2. Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong."

Probably the most famous of all management laws is attributed to American military pilot and aerospace engineer Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. Entire books have been devoted to explaining this law. Which is why there are numerous interpretations. Murphy's law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, unless you want to show that something is going wrong. The reason for this assumption is the observation that through selective perception, experience and evaluation, we usually experience things more distorted and negative than they actually are. As a result, everyone develops an individual level of risk tolerance, which a good project manager must also consider within their team. The project manager must work to balance the risk tolerances of the stakeholders with the level of uncertainty that is appropriate for the successful completion of the project. Anticipatory planning is required to manage the inevitable setbacks according to Murphy’s law. Attempts should be made from the outset to identify what could go wrong and to reduce or eliminate that possibility. The very process of identifying a risk eliminates its most damaging characteristic: surprise.


3. Constantine's Law: "A fool with a tool is still a fool."

Larry Constantine is a software engineer and designer who pioneered the Structured Design approach to software development. An important implication of his law is that "A fool with a tool is an even more dangerous fool." This assumption can be especially applied to relying on project management software for support. Constantine argues that a tool will not be effective until the concepts and processes behind it are fully understood. He illustrates his rule with the comparison to a school child who is allowed to use a calculator before it mastered to skill to calculate the basic functions without help. Accordingly, Constantine's Law states: Only when people understand the principles of project management, can they used automated tools effectively.


4. Augustine's Law: "A bad idea executed to perfection is still a bad idea."

Norman R. Augustine is a former chairman and CEO of a U.S. corporation and author of ironic observations on business and life, including a large number of "laws." His guiding principle is that no decision in project management is as important as the selection of projects to implement. Far too often, all sense of strategy and prioritization is lost in selecting the right projects. All projects must be carefully vetted to ensure they align with the organization's strategy and provide the most value relative to other potential projects. Then, as the project progresses, ongoing quality control plays an important role, because if complex processes are pushed through to the end without a quality check, the likelihood of losing all the value created increases. To prevent a project from failing, it is important to establish checkpoints early on.


Next week, in the second part of this blog series, we will introduce you to another four laws that you can apply to your everyday project work.

Also read: The 62 Most Inspiring Project Management Quotes

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