Learning Lessons

I come from a family of practical people: entrepreneurs, farmers, teachers, engineers, and so on. People who get stuff done.

I’ve read two books recently that made reflect on practicality (and my family), and the role of failure in forming experience. As project managers we often use building analogies, and the books in question: How Buildings Learn, and To Engineer is Human – The Role of Failure in Success use building, as well as engineering case studies in figuring out why things fail, and how to avoid the same things in future.

Building collapses, plane crashes, and bridge failures (especially those that lead to injury or worse) demand rigorous investigation, but in projects where failure is less obvious – like the average software implementation, investigations are sometimes less than rigorous.

Neither book is recent, but the lessons are timeless. In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand talks about buildings that succeed (like modest practical buildings that can be adapted to changing uses), and those that have the appearance of success (such as I.M. Pei’s shiny MediaLab building at MIT, which is – according to Brand – restrictive, difficult to maintain, and which prevents the casual exchange of ideas on which great progress depends).

I’m a believer in platforms and frameworks, whether that’s a platform like eBay, Twitter, and so on where users invent new features that are adopted by the platform as they grow, or frameworks like MSP (Managing Successful Programmes – a flexible, practical approach to help practitioners avoid the mistakes of their forebears).

Platforms are more successful over time than prescriptive processes because no matter how thorough the design process, how sound our thinking, we cannot anticipate every way that people will use the systems we build. We cannot design for every edge case and still deliver to time and budget, so we should design for flexibility that can respond to use in the real world. The legendary management thinker Peter Drucker summed it up in 1985 in the seminal Innovation and Entrepreneurship:

A new venture needs to build in systematic practices to remind itself that its product or service is defined by the customer, not the producer. It needs to constantly challenge itself on the utility and value that its products or services contribute to its customers.

I often seem to read that if we’re not making mistakes we’re not learning, and its true that doing new things (even if they’re only new to an individual or organisation) usually involves more mistakes than is comfortable, but if we’re serious about succeeding – however we define success – we can learn the lessons of others’ mistakes, by reading about them, and learning from them.

If you’re interested in learning the lessons of project success (and failure), reading How Buildings Learn, and To Engineer is Human is a good start.