Savvy Speaks: Harpooning the Fail Whale

Savvy Speaks: Harpooning the Fail Whale
Savvy Sisters - Wed Jul 20, 2011 @ 04:00AM
Comments: 6

Oops. You messed up. Big time. What do you do next? Tread carefully; whether you channel your inner Phoenix or closet Captain Ahab just may determine the course of your career. So - how do YOU handle failure? This week the Savvy Sisters share what they have learned from their biggest mistakes.


Planning, prevention, and people skills

I don't mean to sound smug, but I can't recall a specific screw up to share. (Knock on wood, right?) What I can share, are my three best tips for avoiding flubs and faux pas:

Planning: Don't skimp on the planning phases. Document everything. Make sure all players are on the same page. If a change is made mid-stream, update your documentation. This isn't about CYA (cover your you-know-what), it's about clear and consistent communication.

Prevention: When you do experience a bad situation, pay attention to how it happened and make a mental note to watch out for that pitfall the next time around. Put your experiences (good and bad!) to work for you by ensuring you never make the same mistake twice.

People Skills: When something does go awry be gracious, be honest, and put your best conflict resolution skills to work. Remember that you're all on the same team. Don't dwell. Take the hit, rectify the problem, and move on with a clean slate.


Check, double check, then check again

Oh, so many to choose from! My worst in terms of cost was probably the following: I had spent several weeks carefully updating a multi-page marketing document. When all the input was in, I forwarded it to the "big guy" to ask for - and recieve -  final approval. He said there were no changes, so I forwarded the approved doc he sent back to me to the printer.

When the enormously expensive print order came in, turns out the boss had attached the original version of the document to his approval email, and I didn't notice. Um, ooops.

It took a lot of sweet talking, but since we were a big customer for the printing house, they graciously reprinted the entire order at no charge to us.

The lesson? Check, check and recheck. Even if it's not going to the printer, it IS going in front of your potential customers. Oh, and don't be afraid to ask for a favor from a vendor, they just might surprise you!


Go over everything with the group

I do a fair amount of public speaking, often as part of a panel or with numerous co-presenters.  Many of these people I have presented with dozens of times so we tend to collaborate via email and just mash our powerpoint presentations from thumb drives at the last minute.  This has resulted in some really bad graphics, text misalignments, etc due to slide templates conflicting.  Like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in the hallway outside the meeting room.

After a few really heart pounding races to the finish line that were no doubt noticed by prospective clients and conference participants I now institute a 24 hour lock down on the presentation materials and attempt to do a walk through even via skype so everyone has a chance to see everyone elses slides. 

The remember that time......war stories are fun but not as fun as doing a good and less stressful presentation!


React quickly
I remember a mistake from  this past December. We were moving a website from test to production, and our email service provider accidentally resent blog notifications for about 10 posts. This meant that all of our blog subscribers received 10 emails from us one Saturday afternoon. Of course, it looked like spam!
We immediately got on Twitter to publically apologize and let our followers know what happened. We then monitored the stream to answer any questions that came in. We also sent an apology email to let users know what had happened.  To prevent the problem in the future, we tried to understand what happened so we could put precautions in place. 
While the situation was not ideal, most people understand that people are human. Address the issue quickly, honestly and simply--and the damage should be minimal. 



Pay attention to what's going on


As a freelance writer, I'm asked to write on a variety of topics which is how I found myself covering a town hall event with President Obama. Usually I love these types of events, they have lots of energy and lots of passion but on this particular day I wasn't so thrilled. I had recently had knee surgery and the thought of standing for hours was not something I was looking forward to.


The (long) event went over well, State dignitaries were introduced, questions were asked and then Obama left with his entourage.


Seeing that the back press door was open, I figured I'd duck out as well. My leg was killing me.


Lucky me, no one was in the parking lot yet. Off to the side, I saw Obama and his traveling press corp pass me on the long high school driveway.


If I hurried, I could get home and put some ice on my knee before I had to take the kids skiing. I got in my car and cut through the parking lot.


While driving on this barren driveway following the “parade” in front of me and seeing police barrier after police barrier, it finally dawned on me what I was doing.


There is a reason why no one is supposed to be released early from Presidential events. You are supposed to allow time for him to get away. No one is EVER supposed to get close to the POTUS.


I was way too close.


I was lucky. I didn't get arrested (although I did get a strange look from one officer). Enough time had passed from when the President's cars had left and I showed up. They opened up the barriers right after I passed through.


Fortune smiled on my stupidity that day and it's a good thing because being arrested for stalking a President probably wouldn't have looked that great on my CV.



Keep it in perspective

Knock on wood -- it's been a while since I've made the type of mistake that sets my heart pounding and weakens my knees. And the fact that I can't recall the details of that last big mistake is the lesson. When you make a mistake (and inevitably, you will), take a deep breath, put it in perspective, and consider your options.

Whatever you end up doing, owning up to your mistake so you can nip it in the bud is the best course of action. And remember, unless your mistake caused physical harm or a company's share price to plummet, it's likely not worth losing sleep over.


What was your biggest mistake?

How did you handle it?

Comments: 6


1. Richard Bellikoff  |  my website   |   Thu Jul 21, 2011 @ 01:29AM

My biggest mistake came early in my career, when I could at least claim that I didn't know better.

I was working on an employee orientation project for a large defense contractor. I had the rare privilege of being asked by the client to charge them at an hourly rate. However, the work was so all-consuming that I failed to bill them periodically as the project proceeded, but deferred all my invoicing until the end.

At that point, my total was disputed by the person I was working for, who claimed that I couldn't possibly have put in all those hours. Ironically, the extraordinary amount of time expended was actually his fault, since he was an incompetent bureaucratic middle-manager (incompetent corporate bureaucrats -- we are shocked, shocked!) who had given me minimal support throughout the project, increasing my workload by forcing me, proactively, to do a lot of research to unearth information that he was supposed to provide me.

I had kept time logs of my work, but still, it was basically my word against his. After many mutual threats and recriminations (I was younger and more hotheaded in those days), I wound up negotiating with him for a lesser amount that I convinced myself I could live with. I swore that I would never work for that company again, and was spared having to do so by its being engulfed and devoured by a larger competitor.

The moral of this story is obvious: On a long project, make sure you get paid as you proceed. Get some payment up front too -- even on short projects.

2. Michele Linn   |   Thu Jul 21, 2011 @ 09:20AM

That's a great story and lesson, Richard! Payment up front and a project scope are very important. Thanks for adding to the conversation!


3. Jamie Lee Wallace  |  my website   |   Thu Jul 21, 2011 @ 04:49PM

I agree - that is a GREAT story, Richard.
There are so many lessons to be learned when it comes to running your business ... unfortunately, many of them have to be learned the hard way ... but only once, right?

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