post implementation reviews

I never lose. I either win or learn. – Nelson Mandela

According to statistics 25% of projects and programs are expected to ‘fail’ before they start (Burger, 2016) and only 64% of projects meet their goals (Bonnie, 2015).  When you look at some of the price tags of some of these ‘failures’ they certainly have caused pain to Governments, Private Industry and Investors.

However, if viewed a different way, the price of ‘failure’ is only painful if the same mistakes occur over and over again and never leads to change.

As the joke says “What is the definition of insanity” doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.  Unfortunately, many organizations follow the words of wisdom of Nelson Mandela and other great leaders.  Basically, it is not a complete failure if the lessons learned then contribute to the next success.

Why do Post Implementation Reviews

Famously, Thomas Edison supposedly took 10,000 attempts to invent the light bulb.  He is reputed to say “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work suggesting that with each attempt he learned something and applied it to finally invent a commercially viable light bulb.

Thomas Edison probably didn’t appoint a review team, hold workshops, interviews and post mortems, publish a report with some recommendations, then hand it out for those interested to interpret what could be done differently.

He certainly wouldn’t have sought out someone to blame or feel to need to find someone to pin the ‘failure’ on.   I expect he immediately looked at what had worked, and the identified at which point it stopped working, so this would have been his starting point to continue towards his goal.

Firstly, abandoning a project is not always a bad thing.  Continuing on a path that is not going to achieve the intended objective is less excusable than taking the courageous step of pulling the plug.

Second, learning from the post mortems is no easy thing. Getting a conclusive reason for the failure is usually hard and rarely (if ever) just one reason, mostly it is a combination of events leading to a perfect storm, or a comedy of errors.

Most post implementation reviews end up being superficial for a number of reasons:

1)  Risks were not effectively managed and addressed early

2) Senior executives feel an element of embarrassment or contribution (often through lack of attention to signs) and therefore want to downplay the results and hope that the memory of the project will quickly fade away.

3) Reasons for failure may be specific but recommended solutions are often vague e.g. didn’t follow processes, or market conditions changed!

Back in the 1990s Total Quality Management began to address this.  Unfortunately, TQM is now an outdated and considered one of many business ‘fads’ that petered out over time or superseded in many organisations by the dreaded ISO 2000.  Had it been allowed to flourish, and become embedded in the way we do business.

Post implementation recommendations and change is only successful when it is accompanied by cultural change, and the collective agreement that the learning experience will lead to future benefit.

Why Cultural Change is so needed

Failure and blame unfortunately go hand-in-hand.  TQM promoted that 99.9% of people do not set out to do a bad job or ‘fail’.  Therefore focusing on the people should be the last activity that any post implementation review should take as there starting hypothesis.  They purported it is the drivers that need to be examined that will provide the lessons where change and improvement needs to be made.

However, almost every organisation, family or culture will focus on the individual, therefore we learn very early in life that admitting failure = taking the blame.  There is also a belief that if culprits aren’t punished then there is no deterrent for up and coming project executives to take more care.  But show me where this has proved to be successful.

Ask the brave men of Colditz, did seeing their fellow prisoners punished for escape attempts deter others from trying?  Did it just make them more determined to succeed and did they learn from their peers failures?  And, if in the short it has an effect, does a culture of fear really succeed in the long term.

Unfortunately, there is rarely an organisation mature or safe enough for individuals to be rewarded for being brave enough to euthanize something that has become terminal.  A Harvard Business Review study reveals that in fact only 2% – 5% of reasons for failure can be pinpointed to deli berate blameable actions, yet 70% – 90% are treated as such.

What is unfortunate in these statistics is that blame gets in the way of the opportunity to learn and use the lesson to achieve success in the next venture.

Do you get a Return on Investment (ROI)

Therefore, if organisations want to get an effective ROI from the time they invest in their post-implementation reviews, then there are a few core guidelines that should be set, these are:

– There is to be no attempt at a blame game or taking a ‘’person’ view of the events
– The focus is to be on the root cause, not the effect
– Not all failures are created equal i.e. they need to be categorised into these broad categories:

1) Preventable
2) Complexity related (a bridge too far)
3) Intelligent

Lastly, if you really want to change the culture, how about rewarding those who can demonstrate that they have actively learned from the past to create success in the future.  Heaping recognition of these individuals will have a much greater impact on the organisation than cutting down those who tried to success but fell short.

Of course, the other approach is to follow another old TQM chestnut, which is “Prevention not Appraisal”, or put another way:  ‘start with the end in mind’.  But that is the subject for another article.

Gillian Anderson is a Director of Radial 1 Consulting, a Talent Dynamics Performance Consultant and an Associate of  She works with small businesses through to multi-national and public sector organisations to build high performing and engaged teams.  She also works with individuals and families to better understand themselves and their relationships – after all families are just another form of a team.