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Learning how to fail in projects

Blog posted by: Jenny McLaughlin, 31 Jan 2022.

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My last two blogs have spoken about neurodiversity in project management and labels. This time I wanted to cover the aspects of being neurodivergent and how it requires me to become resilient to failure, something all of us should be able to face.

To recap, neurodiversity is the term used to explain that all of our brains work differently, as individual as a finger print. How we interact with the world, process information, are able to plan, and our emotional response are all affected by the wiring in our brain. There is no one right way to be wired, but society has been constructed to favour the majority, which creates barriers to those of us who think differently and often leads us to feeling we have failed.

Before I was diagnosed with ADHD I was often shamed in to believing I was over sensitive, too talkative, rude, ditsy, unreliable and in many other ways disappointed people; I would be better if I could function as they do. I can’t because my brain is wired differently which means I don’t have the executive function skills. See Amanda Kirby’s article for more information.

I had to become resilient to failure, to prove myself beyond the expectations of others. Although I may be late, forgetful, talkative and impulsive, I achieve projects that others thought impossible. What I learnt from this is that failure is part of the journey to success. As Thomas Edison (who is believed to have been neurodivergent) says "…many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up." [sic]

"I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work."

This is also something that Thomas Edison said, something I learnt to do and a mindset I think we all need to adapt to. So often within projects the fear of failure becomes our biggest enemy. The concept of failure (like beauty) is embodied in the beholder; every person on the team, the stakeholders and the wider business will come to different conclusions.

Being right is not the end goal, delivering to the best of our abilities, acknowledging each of us is human (and therefore unique) is key to learning how to fail well. For even on the bad days, if we remove fear and allow space to breathe we will achieve. When we are paralysed by the fear of being wrong, we fall back on compliance of doing what we’re told and instructed; what we’ve always done. This prevents true collaborative communication and stifles the opportunities to achieve the goals. It’s okay to fail, you won’t learn anything without it.

Here are some things to I aspire to do and remember when things aren’t going right in projects:

  • Become more curious about different thinking and provide psychological safety to yourself and others to find a different view point. How do other people perceive a failure? What would they do in this situation?
  • Failure is not a constant or a fact, it requires the context of surroundings, our experience and our expectations.
  • Shed the shackles of the need to be perfect and right. Getting comfortable with being able to be curious and vulnerable opens up exponential possibilities.
  • Pause to check in on mutual understanding and allow possibility to change tack where needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to do something new. We must hold ourselves to achieving project outcomes not through compliance, but through collaborative agreement.

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About the Author

Jenny McLaughlin

Jenny McLaughlin has worked within the airport industry for over 19 years. This began at East Midlands Airport as an Environment and Safeguarding Officer achieving ISO14001. The last 14 years have been at Heathrow Airport in a number of departments including Environment, Airside and now Infrastructure as a project manager.

Jenny has delivered a number of business changes, from new aircraft de-icing process, introducing new IT applications, building a remote coaching gate in the middle of a live terminal, to significant maintenance work to the Northern runway.

Jenny is the Lead for Heathrow’s Disability Network and brings that to her PM role. Jenny advocates that each person should have an equitable seat at the table and creating a safe environment to challenge and improve the way we interreact and build the world around us.

Jenny is dyslexic and has ADHD and believes that “the way that my brain is wired differently is an asset”. Finally, Jenny is a speaker at a number of industry events on ‘Systematic Inclusion’ including at last year’s APM Think Differently conference, talking about building inclusion in to project design.


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