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Gleb Tsipursky


How to Prevent Project or Process Quality Failures

Strategies to assess and defeat mental blind spots and avoid disasters

Published: Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 13:02

When was the last time you as a quality professional saw a major failure in implementing decisions? What about in project or process management? Such disasters can have devastating consequences for high-flying careers and successful companies. Yet they happen all too often, with little effort taken to prevent failure.

For example, many leaders stake their reputations on key projects such as successful product launches. However, research shows that most product launches fail. Nike’s FuelBand, launched with much fanfare in 2012, flopped on arrival. By 2014, Nike fired most of the team behind FuelBand, discontinuing this product.

One of the most important types of projects for a business is a merger or acquisition. Yet 70 to 90 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail to create value, and CEOs who lead failed M&As are frequently replaced. For instance, Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer left in large part due to the tensions around his push to acquire Nokia, which eventually led to Microsoft writing off $8.4 billion.

Process failures can be just as bad. Safety failures led to the recall of more than 20 million pounds of food across the United States in 2018; from 1996 to 2017, more than 390 million cars and other motor vehicles had a recall, along with 154 million motor vehicle parts. The grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, caused in large part by the display alert system software, cost the company more than $1 billion.

Of course, while examples from big companies make the headlines, midsize and small businesses have their share of catastrophes in implementing decisions and managing projects and processes.

Such mistakes largely come from the many dangerous judgment errors that result from how our brains are wired, what scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call cognitive biases. We make these mistakes not only at work, but also in our personal lives, for example in our shopping choices, as revealed by a series of studies done by a shopping comparison website.

Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to assess and defeat these mental blind spots to avoid disasters—in your business, in your relationships, and in other life areas. You can do so using structured decision-making techniques for making quick, everyday decisions, for more complex and significant ones, and for critically important and highly complex choices.

Such techniques will also help you make the best strategic plans, ones that empower you to address threats and seize opportunities in the long term. Finally, you can also gain mental skills and habits to defeat cognitive biases and make the best decisions in the moment.

You also need to avoid failures and maximize success in implementing these significant decisions, and in managing projects and processes that result from these decisions. The most relevant scholarship in implementing decisions deals with prospective hindsight, which helps you anticipate and avoid threats as well as notice and seize opportunities.

Eight key steps to preventing disasters in implementing decisions

“Failure-proofing” is a pragmatic and easy-to-use strategy for obtaining the benefits of prospective hindsight. Having developed this technique based on behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience studies, I then tested it on the front lines during my more than 20 years of experience consulting and coaching leaders in large and midsize companies and nonprofits to avoid project or process failures. Use failure-proofing after you make any substantial choices to ensure success in implementing decisions.

Step 1: Gather all relevant stakeholders
Gather all the people relevant for making the decision in the room, or representatives of the stakeholders if there are too many to have in a group. A good number is six; avoid more than 10 people to ensure a manageable discussion.

Make sure the people in the room have the most expertise in the decision to be made, rather than simply gathering higher-up personnel. The goal is to address what might go wrong and how to fix it, as well as what might go right and how to ensure it. Expertise here is as important as authority. At the same time, have some people with the power to decide how to address problems and seize opportunities that might be uncovered.

It’s helpful to recruit an independent facilitator who is not part of the team to help guide the exercise. You can get someone from your advisory board, someone from another part of the organization, your mentor, or a coach or consultant.

Step 2: Explain how failure-proofing works to prevent failure in implementing decisions, or in project and process management
Explain the failure-proofing process to everyone by describing all the steps, so that all participants are on the same page about the exercise.

Step 3: Develop two next-best alternatives to the current plan for implementing the decision, or managing the project or process
Develop two next-best alternatives (NBAs) to the plan for the decision, project, or process you are evaluating. Have each participant on the team come up with and write down one NBA anonymously. Anonymity is critical to ensure that unpopular or politically problematic opinions can be voiced. (“Perhaps we should wait for a better opportunity rather than acquiring this company.”)

The facilitator gathers what people wrote—ensuring anonymity if the facilitator isn’t part of the team and doesn’t know people’s handwriting—and reads out the alternatives. Then, have team members vote on the choices that seem most viable, and choose two to discuss. Make sure to give them a fair hearing by having two team members, including at least one with authority, defend each NBA.

After discussing the NBA, take an anonymous vote on whether the NBA seems preferable to the original project or process under discussion. If the original project or process still seems best (which is what happens in the large majority of cases), consider if the project or process can be strengthened by integrating any components of the two NBAs into your plan.

Step 4: Imagine that the decision, project, or process definitely failed, and brainstorm reasons for why your plan failed
Next, ask all the stakeholders to imagine that they are in a future where the project or process definitely failed (an approach informed by the Premortem technique). Doing so gives permission to everyone, even the biggest supporters of the project or process, to use their creativity in coming up with possible reasons for failure.

Otherwise, their emotions—which determine 80 to 90 percent of our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions—will likely inhibit their ability to accept the possibility of project or process failure. That’s why simply asking everyone to imagine potential problems works much less well. Supporters of the project experience a defensive emotional response that leaves their minds much less capable of creatively envisioning possible problems.

After giving such permission, have each participant anonymously write out plausible reasons for this disaster. Anonymity is especially important here, due to the potential for political danger in describing potential problems. (“The product launch will fail because the marketing department overhyped it, leading to unhappy consumers.”) Ask everyone to come up with at least three most plausible failures, while highlighting that the reasons for coming up with these failures is to address them effectively.

These failures should include internal decisions under the control of the project team, such as cost and staffing, as well as potential external events, such as an innovation introduced by a competitor. Encourage participants to focus particularly on reasons they would not typically bring up because it would be seen as rude or impolitic, such as criticizing someone’s competency, or even dangerous to one’s career, such as criticizing the organization’s strategy. Emphasize that everyone’s statements will remain anonymous.

The facilitator gathers everyone’s statements, and then highlights the key themes brought out as reasons for project failure, focusing especially on reasons that would not be typically brought up, and ensuring anonymity in the process.

Step 5: Decide on the most likely and serious problems leading to failure
Discuss all the reasons brought up, paying particular attention to ones that are rude, impolitic, and dangerous to careers. Check for potential cognitive biases that might be influencing the assessments. The most significant ones to watch out for are loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effect.

Then, assess anonymously the probability of each reason for failure, ideally placing percentage probabilities. If doing so is difficult, use terms like “highly likely,” “somewhat likely,” “unlikely,” and “very unlikely.” Also consider how harmful each reason for failure might be, and pay more attention to the ones that are most harmful. Here, the expertise of individual members of the team will be especially useful.

The leader or person assigned as note-taker should write down all the problems brought up, as well as assessments of the probabilities.

Step 6: Brainstorm ways to fix problems and integrate your ideas into the plan
Decide on several failures that are most relevant to focus on, and brainstorm ways of solving these, including how to address potential mental blind spots. Also, discuss any evidence you might use that would serve as a red flag that the failure you are discussing is occurring or about to occur. For this step, it is especially important to have people with authority in the room.

The leader or note-taker should write down the possible solutions.

Step 7: Imagine that the decision, project, or process succeeded; brainstorm ways of achieving this outcome, and integrate your ideas into the plan
We addressed failure; now let’s make sure you don’t simply avoid failure but maximize success! Imagine that you are in a future where the project or process succeeded far beyond what you expected. Have each participant anonymously write out plausible reasons for this success. Next, have the facilitator highlight the key themes.

Discuss all the reasons, and check for the same cognitive biases as above. Evaluate anonymously the probability of each reason for success, and decide which deserve the most attention. Then, brainstorm ways of maximizing each of these reasons for success.

The leader or note-taker should write down the ideas to maximize success.

Step 8: Revise the overall plan based on this strategic exercise
The leader should revise the project or process based on the feedback, and if needed, repeat the exercise.


To prevent quality disasters and maximize success, use this failure-proofing technique prior to implementing decisions of any significance, and to assess the management of substantial projects and processes.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, he is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course