The Best Mistakes I've Made: NZTE's David Downs on avoiding 'The Slow March to Death', the importance of battle scars and moving on

Idealog has partnered with Callaghan Innovation to take a look at the nature of failure in business – the good, the bad and the unintentionally educational. So we’re asking questions: Is there a stigma, in this country, around ‘failure’? Is it a good thing to ‘fail fast’? Would you be wary investing in a start-up run by an entrepreneur with a string of failed businesses? We’ll be presenting the results of our survey in a special feature – ‘The F Word’ – in the next issue of Idealog. In the lead up to that, we’re asking Kiwi high-fliers and heavy-hitters about what failure means to them, what they’ve learned, and what ‘mistakes’ they’re most proud of.

Next up, NZTE's ‎general manager David Downs. 

People tell you that you should fail fast. I hope what they mean is, IF you are going to fail, it's best to do it fast, rather than as an outright suggestion to fail. 

Anyway, I learned this lesson the hard way – that slow failure is the worst failure – in many projects related to IT.  IT projects are notoriously riddled with delays and issues, and often (something like more than 50 percent of the time) they fail, in that they don’t deliver what they set out to do. In IT, project failure is so common that those in them often refer to them as the Slow March to Death. IT Projects are like Eastern European building standards – they are probably going to fail, it’s just a question of when, and how badly.

I remember one particularly awful example – I was leading a large team, implementing a new system for a large customer. As is often the case, there were early signs that the project wasn’t going to go well – we couldn’t agree with the customer what the scope of the project was, we had issues getting the right resources, we had to work too hard to get the right products … But, being an unerring optimist, I ignored these early warning signs and launched in. The problems continued – issues with the subcontractor, issues with finalising requirements, issues with getting the testing done – but every steering group meeting I bravely convinced myself that things were going to get better.

Only they didn’t, of course. And now we were about a million dollars into the project budget, and I had a dawning realisation that we had virtually no chance of getting the project delivered on time. I called my key project team together – “Guys (IT project remember, they were all blokes), we are in trouble. But I know we’ve all been here before, so let’s work out a way to complete the project.” Looking around the room, though, and seeing the fear in their eyes, I realised I was wrong – they hadn’t all been here before, they were out of their depth, they hadn’t experienced failure of this magnitude before. Seemingly only I had stuffed-up so spectacularly in the past. And because of that, none of them had seen the same warning signs I had, and had let other issues get ignored. We were buggered.

From the resultant mess – and, of course, a cleanup – I learned a few key lessons:

  • If you are going to fail, fail as fast as you can.
  • Make sure everyone knows what failure feels like, that they have scars on their backs. That’s not to say you wish everyone to fail, but you certainly want to have people with you who know the early signs and can help make the decision for lesson #1.
  • The sun will come up tomorrow. Yes, Annie was right, no matter how bad the feeling of failure is, eventually it will be resolved, eventually you will move on. It’s important to know this when the time comes for lesson #1.

Check out some of the other views on failure from friends of the Idealog family here