How to be a Successful Failure


Dr David Hillson, PMI Fellow, HonFAPM, FIRM

Director, Risk Doctor and Partners



Failure is a big topic. The word has many layers of meaning, and evokes a range of responses from different individuals and groups, depending on their background, circumstances, ambitions, hopes and fears. This paper lays out the scope and boundaries of the topic, defining failure first in relation to its opposite, success. We then go on to explore some of the key characteristics of failure which might be expected to apply wherever it is encountered. Failure is not a unitary concept and some of the multiple dimensions are then outlined, before suggesting some broad ways in which we might tackle failure whenever we come across it.

Failure and Success

At first sight failure and success are simple opposites. To fail is not to succeed, and success is the absence of failure. But closer examination reveals a complex relationship between these two concepts and they are not mere antonyms. Understanding how they relate together offers important insights into the nature of failure and how it should be approached. There are two important relationships to consider between failure and success. Firstly, failure starts where success ends, and it defines the limits of success. But secondly, success often follows failure, since it frequently occurs after other options have been tried and failed. These two key relationships are described below.

Failure defines limits of success

The first thing to note about failure is that it occurs at the point where we stop succeeding. In other words, we know when we are no longer succeeding when we hit our first failure. This might be described as the “Comfort Success Zone” (CSZ), which can occur in any area of activity or enterprise if we keep succeeding until we fail.

This describes the situation where persistent success is bound to lead to failure: if we continue to explore the boundaries of our CSZ then at some point we will reach a boundary where further success is not possible, as illustrated in Figure 1.


To read entire paper (click here)

Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally published as part of the Proceedings of PMI Global Congress EMEA in Milan, Italy. It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

To view PowerPoint Presentation from PMI congress, click here



About the Author

pmwj36-Jul2015-Hillson-PHOTODr. David Hillson

The Risk Doctor
United Kingdom

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Dr David Hillson CMgr FRSA FIRM FCMI HonFAPM PMI-Fellow is The Risk Doctor (http://www.risk-doctor.com/).  As an international risk consultant, David is recognised as a leading thinker and expert practitioner in risk management. He consults, writes and speaks widely on the topic and he has made several innovative contributions to the field. David’s motto is “Understand profoundly so you can explain simply”, ensuring that his work represents both sound thinking and practical application.

David Hillson has over 25 years’ experience in risk consulting and he has worked in more than 40 countries, providing support to clients in every major industry sector, including construction, mining, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, financial services, transport, fast-moving consumer goods, energy, IT, defence and government. David’s input includes strategic direction to organisations facing major risk challenges, as well as tactical advice on achieving value and competitive advantage from effectively managing risk.

David’s contributions to the risk discipline over many years have been recognised by a range of awards, including “Risk Personality of the Year” in 2010-11. He received both the PMI Fellow award and the PMI Distinguished Contribution Award from the Project Management Institute (PMI®) for his work in developing risk management. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the UK Association for Project Management (APM), where he has actively led risk developments for nearly 20 years. David Hillson is an active Fellow of the Institute of Risk Management (IRM), and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to contribute to its Risk Commission. He is also a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and a Member of the Institute of Directors (IOD).

Dr Hillson can be contacted at [email protected].

To see other works previously published in the PM World Journal by Dr David Hillson, visit his author showcase at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/dr-david-hillson/