Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

Managing Mistakes

Spilled Coffee on Keyboard - Image Source, ReadersDigest.com

You will make mistakes. Your teams will make mistakes. This is going to happen. It happens to everyone. Making a mistake often fills people with anxiety and angst. But, it doesn’t have to. Once a mistake has been made, you can’t undo it. There is no placing of a genie back into a bottle. But, how you manage the mistake can change everything.

Let me start with the 3 critical things that must happen when you make a mistake:

  1. Speed: Information about mistakes should travel faster than information about successes. You shouldn’t have to provide all the details. There will be time for that. But, ensuring the right people are aware of a mistake, quickly, is critical to navigating what happens next.
  2. The Truth: Be 100% honest about what happened, when it happened, and why it happened. The “what” helps everyone understand the potential impact. The “when” sets the clock for how much time there is to mitigate the mistake. And, the “why” frames up if it was avoidable, how to fix this instance, and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  3. A Plan: You’ve made the mistake. You know what happened. You know when it happened. And, you know why it happened. So, how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again? Proactively bringing this to the table shows you’ve taken accountability and you’re committed to ensuring we don’t repeat avoidable mistakes.

Mistakes happen for a number of reasons. There needs to be accountability from the person or team that made the mistake. But, there also needs to be accountability from managers, leaders, and the organization. The very first question I ask myself when a mistake is made on my watch, by my team is, “Were they placed in a position to succeed?” It’s a simple question, but it changes the course of everything moving forward and how you address those who made the mistake.

What does that question really mean though? Here’s a few examples:

  • Resourcing: Did they have the right resources? Maybe your team has been requesting resources for 6 months and they’ve been unable to get them. A mistake due to lack of resources is as much your mistake as a leader as it is the team who made the mistake because of a lack of resources.
  • Process: Was the process followed? Maybe in a desire to do something quickly, the team was asked to skip or accelerate certain steps. When that happens, mistakes are more likely to happen. If you requested that change in process or you elected not to follow the process, you are just as accountable as the team who made the mistake.
  • Timing: Was the timing realistic and necessary? There’s nothing worse than an accelerated timeline born out of an arbitrary reason. Got it – your CEO wants X to happen immediately. But, you know it takes 8 hours to do X. You have two choices here. You could protect your team and ensure flawless execution by managing up to the CEO. Or, you could simply do as asked and in doing so increase the likelihood that mistakes will happen. If you choose to do as asked, you have to own the mistake as much as the team that asked.

Everything stems from that one question. If you didn’t place them in a position to succeed your first words when notified about a mistake should be, “Thank you. I’m sorry I placed you in a position to not be successful. I bear as much responsibility for what happened as you did. Let’s work together to figure out how we avoid this from happening in the future.”

A core tenant of leadership is accountability. Before casting blame, pointing the finger, and getting angry, you must first evaluate what you could have done better.