Whether it’s a huge grand-scale change failure or an everyday minor mishap, project failure is a very real fear. In fact, it’s something which many project managers suffer from. It’s natural for people with such large amounts of responsibility to have a little bit of fear of failure. However, the potential missed business opportunities and the possibility of embarrassment in front of colleagues means this fear can be severely limiting. The good news is that this can be counteracted and overcoming fear of failure is a real possibility!

Fear of Project Failure Often Makes Sense

Of course, it would be silly to suggest that we can get rid of project failure fear entirely. Actually, sometimes it is warranted. Perhaps, you are managing a large change project or even leading a part of the retail operation. Any sizeable failure could easily find its way to be reported in the press or on social media. In turn, this could and would cost you and your business money and reputation. So, it’s a natural human reaction to have a fear of failing – a fear of making a mess of it all.

But, it’s not just catastrophic, large scale failure that gets into project managers’ heads though. Despite the stakes being much less significant, it’s also common for people to fear smaller failures too. Examples of these smaller errors are typos/mistakes in an important document or a key meeting not going according to plan. Although it’d be easy to say “sh*t happens” or “chill out” as a project management mantra, there is indeed some goodness in being afraid of project failure.

Your brain is alerting you to danger

You see, fear is your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe. Your subconscious or unconscious brain is alerting you to danger which is good. However, your subconscious isn’t as good at assessing the level of danger, so risks can get blown out of proportion.

“The unconscious can prepare simple stimulus-response actions, deliver basic facts, recognise objects and carry out practised movements. Complex cognition involving planning, logical reasoning and combining ideas, on the other hand, requires conscious thought”.

BBC – How Smart Is Your Subconscious

Let your subconscious brain alert you to dangers but support that with logic and conscious thought to assess the danger. Without this, small threats can escalate to major mental worries.

Those Dreaded “What If” Scenarios

Anyone with a degree of anxiety will be able to tell you that “what if?” is perhaps their least favourite question. It’s constantly whizzing around in their brain 24/7. Sadly, the same is often true for project managers. People who have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. A significant chunk of project management is real-time problem-solving. So “what if” scenarios can drive you up the wall if you don’t keep your process under control.

For instance, you may worry if a project doesn’t land well or if a stakeholder pulls out their support. Perhaps, you worry if certain tasks won’t be completed to deadline or if you’ll find yourself in hot water despite your best intentions. When not managed, this fear for project failure can lead you to procrastination and inactivity.

However, asking “what if” can begin to help you turn a subconscious worry into a carefully considered risk. It allows your conscious mind to take a potential threat and make it tangible and justify it – or not.

These “what if” scenarios can be applied to both small and large problems of varying size, scope, and importance.

Whatever you’re what-if-ing about (I think that is a new word!), I’d advise you to follow up and use effective risk management techniques in order to identify the risks and be prepared for them ahead of time.

Risk Management Helps You to Overcome Fear of Failure

Risk management is a classic project manager skill. It’s this skill along with mental strength that will allow you to overcome fear of failure.

Use mental strength to:

  • Identify the potential dangers from your subconscious
  • Stop worrying about risks that you’ve not fully assessed
  • Apply resilience techniques to stay mentally strong

Apply risk management skills to:

  • Understand and assess each potential danger
  • Quantify and prioritise these risks
  • Identify the right remedial action to overcome risks, one by one

Any new project manager should learn to manage risks quickly. It’s an essential skill that will allow you to overcome fear of failure and also minimise the impacts to your project.

When you’re worried about a project failing, it’s a good idea to identify this fear and use effective risk and issue management techniques. These techniques will help you identify the fear, quantify it and overcome it. After all, overcoming fear of failure is one of the first things that any budding project manager should learn to do.

The Bottom Line – Accepting the Fear of Failure

It’s often said that successful people view failure as a necessity. They have accepted that it’s an inevitable experience to go through on their journey to becoming successful. Meanwhile, others seemingly swing from success to success.

What is common is that both of these broad groups of people are aware of the fear of failure – but they don’t let it stop them. However, others have an overwhelming fear of failure that can stop them in their tracks.

Project failures do happen and you need to be able to bounce back from these.

Fear of failure will happen too. It is a natural feeling from our subconscious mind. It helps build awareness of potential dangers.

However, unmanaged fear will lead to actual failure. Stress and worry will increase, mistakes will happen and the project (and you) will stumble.

Instead, be inspired by the potential of project failure. Let it motivate you to “pull your finger out” and manage the details. Manage your risks effectively by understanding the potential dangers ahead and prioritising which are the biggest threats. Allow this logical and structured analysis to give you the freedom to take calculated risks and drive progress.

Are you looking to learn how to effectively manage your risks in project management? What steps are you taking? Feel free to share this article on social media and tag me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

You may also enjoy reading more about how you can avoid the common causes of failure.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s tried a number of different techniques over his years of working on different types and sizes of projects. He blends classic project management techniques from PRINCE2, PMBOK and Lean Six Sigma with a dose of pragmatism and business reality to ensure retail projects are led, managed and delivered successfully.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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