Handling the Mess Ups

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Categories: Leadership

Picture yourself coming to work one morning only to find a scathing e-mail from a client, supervisor or stakeholder, detailing in painful, angry detail how you messed up. What do you do?
    First, keep calm. Then, consider these points:

1. Control your emotions: Chances are that emotion is at an all-time high so your natural instinct is fight or flight. But that will only make things worse. Fighting would be like adding fuel to a burning fire. Withdrawing would make the other party more frustrated at the situation--forcing them to act on emotion rather than logic. Instead, apologize as your opening response; this is a tool for diffusing the emotion and for keeping all parties sane.
2. Establish rapport: Clarify what misconception or misunderstanding your customer may have about your role as anything other than an advocate for them.
3. Express understanding: While it may be impossible to predict the future, provide a plan on what you will do to help mitigate surprises. Even though this time your only option may be to offer an apology, it still signals that someone cares.  
4. Ensure success: Promise what you will do and do what you promise. Nothing reassures your customer more than seeing for herself that you follow through on your plan--even if this means lots of caffeine, late nights and weekends.  
    Good luck!

Posted by Neal Shen on: March 04, 2009 05:36 PM | Permalink


Epifanio (Jun) Bucao, PMP
Another perspective: As a project manager, it is best that one should always be proactive in risk management once he/she is engaged in the project. If the PM does his/her due diligence in applying best practice approach like that of PMBOK's by constantly scanning, identifying, analysing, and responding to risks/opportunities, conflicts can easily be prevented and messed ups are kept at minimum. Even risks that are classified as can't be foreseen can be identified and a mitigation be identified. However, if you did messed up then quickly be a reactive risk manager. What is the risk? Losing TRUST from your stakeholder. Impact: All the worst things you can imagine. On the good side, if you've lost someone's TRUST or have taken a withdrawal from your trust account then don't be frustrated. Know that trust can be rebuilt. And ensured for a long run. Here's my perspective on clearing up messes: 1. Yes, apologize. Just say sorry and move on. Keep your head up. Eyes straight. Don't look down. 2. Yes, acknowledge your stakeholder's sentiments. Don't go against it. Can't put out a fire by throwing gas on it; neither with water. There are two ways to put out fire, let it just burn through or apply fire retardants. Water is not a very effective fire retardant. 4. What's an effective retardant for messes? Ask that the issue be discussed for lessons learned and/or for personal/professional/process improvement. Learning is a life-long activity. Asking others to help you or coach you develops trust faster than just discussing an issue and finding solutions to conflicts. Remember, the goal of this discussion is not to justify what happened nor to elicit blames. The post-messed up discussion's goals must be to re-build the trust lost. This is a step-up on strengthening the rapport has diminished or missing. My suggested personal trait goals for a PM to have: TRUST, INTEGRITY, CHARACTER, AUTHENTICITY, and DELIVER RESULTS. And lastly, make sure all stakeholders and your expectations are aligned properly. Expectations sometimes change. That's why you have to proactively manage this also. Have an expectation checkpoint just like project phase gates. Treat stakeholder expectations as a risk. When messes happen, sometimes the root cause is because someone's expectations were undermined or not satisfied/delivered. That's why you, as a PM, have to be very proactive in your communication methodology. Be authentic and/or transparent. If you don't know certain processes or skills then ask for help in the open. Don't hide your weakness. Turn it into a strength. Don't work with assumptions if they were not validated with the stakeholders. Remember, build trust. After all, project management processes are mainly about communicating activities; as we all agree. I hope this helps. Good luck and live passionately! Cheers, Epifanio (Jun) Bucao, BA, PMP Toronto, Ontario, Canada

William Goelkel
Good points, Neal. In step 3, I’ve found it helpful to offer the customer a choice of alternatives to resolve the issue whenever possible. This empowers them and makes them a partner in the solution, so they have more of a stake in making it work. Looking forward to your future posts. Bill Goelkel, PMP www.pm-notebook.com

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