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Leadership

How to Handle Mistakes

Trite as this sounds, the best you can hope for is to learn from your own mistakes and teach others your mistakes, so they won’t have to learn them first-hand.

Mistakes are inevitable. Especially when you’re pushing past your comfort zones into areas beyond your knowledge and experience. Especially when you’re innovating.

You want examples?

Operating from the assumption that mistakes are inevitable, here’s how to handle it.

Before you do anything else: can you fix it?

Well, usually the answer is “No” but we should still ask the question.

If you CAN fix it, you SHOULD fix it. (Personally, I extend this line of thought — “even if you’re not supposed to” — an axiom you may or may not choose to live by.)

First: own it, but DON’T dwell on it

So many people are terrified of getting in trouble (like we’re still in grade school?) they’ll do anything to conceal a mistake. They’ll lie and collude and scramble to cover themselves and give themselves ulcers and heart attacks.

You have to do the opposite.

Immediately, CALL your client contact or your manager — whoever you’re reporting to.

Why a call? Because you CALL someone when the message is both urgent and important. An email’s too easily overlooked and remember, we’re not trying to HIDE our mistake, right? Cowards send an email with an innocuous subject line at 5:03pm on a Friday and immediately run out the door or turn off their phones.

Here’s your script:

  • I made a mistake.
  • I messed up $specific_thing that resulted in $consequences.
  • I’m really sorry.
  • How can we fix this?

Keep pushing forward through the points to get to the last one — because that’s the most important thing: How can we fix this?

Sometimes you’ll hear nothing but blame. “You did this, you messed this up, this is your fault, I can’t believe you…” etc. You say:

I understand. I accept full responsibility for my mistake. How can we fix this?

You must remain calm. Especially when other people are freaking out. The more yelling, the more accusations, the deeper you must slide into oceanic Zen serenity. Yeah this is hard, especially if you’re impulsive or have a temper. This helps for me:

  • Deep, slow breaths — if you know how to breathe from your diaphragm, do it now.
  • Remind yourself this is a temporary situation. Feelings are not facts.
  • Focus on your goal: fixing the mistake.
  • You will emerge from this experience stronger and smarter if you open yourself up to learning from it.

No matter what anyone says or accuses you of, stick to your script.

Once people have started talking about how to fix it, you’re over the hump.

Second: propose solutions

Look — if this was a problem you could fix, you already would’ve, right? It’s somehow irrevocable, at least at your current level of knowledge/ skill/ authority/ whatever.

Ideally you bring proposed solutions along when you first report the problem. (Trust me — no one likes to hear about problems without potential solutions, too.)

Remember:

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

Albert Einstein, respected problem-solver

Third: create/modify procedures to prevent future occurrences

You want to be able to say, “I’ve done X and Y to ensure this will never happen again.”

Because the greatest balm you can offer the decision-maker right now? Simple: “This will never happen again.”

Further reading: Documentation – the soul of a business

Fourth: use as a teaching moment

Training someone to take over this task? Tell them about the mistake and the consequences. It’s MUCH more effective to explain a set of procedures, provide context, explain you’ve seen the consequences of this step going wrong and what a huge mess it made.

I really like an enhanced procedures document that outlines the why of each step in a non-intrusive form (like footnotes or comments). Why? The procedures doc will become integral to workflow. A few months or years in the future, some clever new-hire will start asking why this and why that and is this step really necessary?

An annotated procedures doc preserves the logic and reasoning and most essentially the experience behind those steps — most essentially, their necessity. This is the kind of preservation of institutional memory most companies just don’t offer. (Even better, it avoids the Grandma’s cooking secret issue by providing the purpose for the steps.)

I’ve found post-mortems incredibly helpful as a team improvement tool. I cribbed this idea from Atul Gawande’s 1999 article in The New Yorker, When Doctors Make Mistakes.

Relevant bit:

…most doctors will only talk openly about their errors at hospital Morbidity and Mortality Conferences–or M. & M.s–which take place weekly at nearly every academic hospital in the nation, and which include surgeons, surgical attendings, residents, interns, and medical students.

Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 1999

M. & M.s work like this: a doctor dispassionately presents a situation that went wrong. All attendees collaboratively point out mistakes and oversights, and offer input on how to improve procedures or training to prevent this sort of thing in the future. The individuals at fault aren’t identified, so there’s no individual blame.

Sometimes it’s a hard sell for your team. Nobody likes to wallow in the slough of despond, feeling like a jerk or a failure. On the other hand, the only way you can realistically ensure this doesn’t happen again is to examine what exactly went wrong, and why.

Wrap-up: what’s the best you can hope for?

Trite as this sounds, the best you can hope for is to learn from your own mistakes and teach others your mistakes, so they won’t have to learn them first-hand.

So, let me know — what’s the worst professional mistake you’ve ever made?


Examples

  1. I updated DNS for the wrong domain and took a very busy ecommerce site offline for nearly a week. This was back in the early oughts, when DNS updates really did take like 48 hours to update. Meantime? Zero online sales and nobody at the whole company could even check email.
  2. I hacked a WordPress plugin for some really minor stuff — mostly layout tweaks. When all finished and tested (in production, of course, because I’m not a real developer) I was so proud of myself I emailed the client a screenshot, “Check it out! I can do ANYTHING,” and then decided that I wasn’t really done because the plugin’s code wasn’t formatted nicely. I formatted it nicely and saved it and in the process I removed one too many closing tags or something because the site broke. Broke HARD. Front-end threw server errors, back-end didn’t respond at all. Yeah, that one missing ?> tag in the footer of all places took down the whole installation. I couldn’t even get freaking cpanel to open up. I called the host and they were all, “WTF did you do?” and were able to restore from backup, two days later. In this case the clients were pretty cool about it because presumably they understood hubris and tragic flaws.
  3. I screwed up Mailchimp merge tag syntax so 75,000 emails went out like this:
    Dear |*FNAME*|,
    We’ve known each other for a long time now, haven’t we? …

    One customer found this so amusing he replied and CCed my boss, my boss’s boss, the owner, Bill Gates, and Jesus to point out how amused he was the marketing department couldn’t even get his name right.

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