Recovering From Mistakes

Everyone has had to send an “oops” email at least once. And there are plenty of articles out there to tell you how to fix your mistake, especially with customers. (Here’s a link to my favorite,by Loren McDonald).

But it’s not just customers affected when mistakes happen. Your and your team’s credibility and ability to get resources in your own organization can take a big hit. Here’s how to turn “oops” into an advantage for your team, inside your business.

Stick to the facts. State factually and impersonally what happened. If you’re not quite sure at first, say what you do know and when you expect to be able to give an update.

Once you’ve identified and communicated the full scope of the issue, announce when you will be able to share a recommended solution or fix. This should be within two days, but not the same day as you announce the “oops.”

Why not the same day? Even if you already have the answer, let people digest that an “oops” happened first. They’ll be more willing to hear a solution after they have had time to come to terms with the magnitude of the error.

Refuse to assign blame. As a leader in a group, part of your job is to stand up for your team members. If the mistake was caused by someone you want off your team due to performance reasons, definitely use the opportunity to have the right conversations and facilitate the firing or transfer. But those conversations are best done in private. In public, you need to avoid playing the blame game. No individual names, not even your own.

Ask for air cover if you need it. That last point is really important, so I’ll say it again: Even if you are at fault, when you state the facts publicly, don’t assume the blame as an individual. Instead, dispassionately state what happened and do any necessary apologizing in private. This might be a good time to ask your boss for air cover while you work on a fix.

One exception to this rule: If your error somehow caused harm to an individual, a public personal apology may be appropriate.

Don’t lose momentum. The few days right after the “oops” are your greatest opportunity to effect any needed change. That’s when everything is still fresh in people’s minds, and you can be the hero for coming up with a solution.

It can be hard when you’re blindsided by a mistake to come up with something brilliant right away. Do what you can, and then continue to investigate if you need time to come up with better options. It’s likely you’ll have another opportunity to implement a more complete fix later.

If you want resources, provide multiple options. You may know exactly what the fix needs to be, but you still need to bring everyone else on board if you’re asking for resources. People react badly to a “my way is the only way” approach, so you’ll want to avoid that perception. Instead of providing your stakeholders with one option, give them three: high cost, medium cost, low cost. Assign risk levels to each so they know what they are getting. Definitely point out which option makes the most sense (the one you want), but be prepared to live with whatever you get.

Prepare for the next time. If you used a mistake to implement a much-needed fix to your processes, next time there’s an “oops,” the first question on everyone’s mind will be, “Why didn’t that fix everything?”

Be prepared with an honest, dispassionate answer: “This issue is completely separate from that part of the process,” “the company chose to implement the highest risk option due to resource constraints, and as expected, this error exploited that already stated risk,” or whatever’s appropriate.

Dealing with a mistake is never fun. But in the same way you can turn an “oops” into an opportunity to improve your relationship with customers, you can also turn the same “oops” into better relationships with your internal stakeholders.

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