On-Site Magazine

Celebrating failure to manage risk

By David Bowcott   

Risk Management

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

The captioned quote was delivered via a commercial at the height of Michael Jordan’s basketball career.  Originally delivered to sell more Nike Air Jordan’s, the simplicity and clarity of this message connected with many at the time, and even today it is cited as amongst the best and most inspirational TV commercials of all time.  It connected with many because its message was simple, it isn’t your success that makes you successful it is learning from your failures and maintaining a hunger to try (and try your best) that makes you successful.

Celebrating failure is a growing trend in many industries.  Construction is no different.  Recently a client of mine told me a great story about a major project his firm was bidding on.  He mentioned to me his bid team came out of a meeting on the project high fiving each other and patting each other on the back.  It was almost as if they’d won the job, even though the job wasn’t closing for a few days.  When the bid team was asked by a fellow employee what it was they were celebrating, one of the leads on the team said: “We found over 20 potentially devastating mistakes in the bid we were about to propose, and it is finding those failures that will likely win us the job!”  Now Jordan made better shots because of the multitude of failed shots he had made in the past.  Not unlike Jordan, this bid team is using the “shots” they’ve all made in the past to uncover potential bad shots in the future.  Effectively the failures this firm experienced in the past have become their battle scars and like many battle scars, you remember quite vividly how you obtained them, and more importantly, how you would avoid them in the future.  It’s easy to celebrate success, but putting aside the anger and embarrassment associated with failure in order to focus on the “why” of failure, is perhaps more worthy of celebration.

As more project delivery models are used that stress transparency, collaboration and the long-term effectiveness of the asset being developed, the need to focus on risk management up front will continue to grow.  Experience, or battle scars, will be drawn upon more frequently during the planning stages of these projects, so the need to tap into those experiences will be a vital ingredient to successful project execution.  It isn’t only about having the experiences to tap into, but how effective your firm is at documenting these experiences and sharing them amongst your firm, and potentially your industry, so that you can better serve your clients.


So how do you capture and use past experiences to more effectively meet the demands of new delivery models (and new asset owners)?  The following are some high level ideas:

1.     Create a Culture of Failure Celebration – People fail and employees shouldn’t be taught to keep failure in the dark.  Failure should be exposed and celebrated so that it can be used to avoid a repeat of history.

2.     Use Technology to Transmit Failure Solutions – Through the power of networks, the experience of a few can be shared with the many.  Invest in technology that can effectively share battle scars.

3.     Peer Benchmarking – Some consulting or risk advisory firms offer the ability to benchmark your best practices (which are largely founded on your firm’s experiences) against the best in the business.  Find the right firm to execute this report and pay the relatively small fees to find out how effective your practices are in fighting future potential failures.

4.     Associations – They aren’t just for great conferences.  Encourage your association to create platforms for sharing experiences and best practices.

5.     Track Root Cause of Loss Data – As contractors you see how design, labour or materials failed to perform as planned.  The frequency at which you see this is often far greater than most owners, design firms, financiers and asset operators.  Harness this information and use these failures to ensure future success.

6.     Acquire and/or Hire Experience – If you do not have employees with experience with specific project types then hire them.  Growing experience can be expensive and sometimes the acquisition of a company or the hiring of a person may save you from the pain of gaining your own battle scars.  Look for the battle scars in the company or employee you are looking to acquire/hire.

7.     Tap Into Your Insurance Partners – Insurance is founded around failures.  When something goes wrong, chances are it is insurable.  Ensure you have an insurance broker and an insurance market with experience and they have the ways and means to allow you to tap into the collective experiences of their clients so as to assist you in navigating future risks.

These are but a few ways to amplify your failures or learn from the failures of others to better manage risk in your firm.  Failure shouldn’t be shunned or hidden. It should be celebrated and used to improve your business. As strange as it may sound, future clients will hire you for your failures, and how you have learned and grown from those mistakes.


David Bowcott is senior vice-president, national director of large/strategic accounts, AON Reed Stenhouse Inc. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com.


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