Project Practitioners > 8 Ways to Recover from a Mistake

8 Ways to Recover from a Mistake

By Sinikka Waugh

So it turns out, most of the project managers I know are, um, human. So mistakes are going to happen from time to time, right?  No one really expects perfection, do they? But how we handle the mistakes, "oopses", can make or break our influence. Project Managers, leaders, vendors, friends…the list goes on. Here are a handful of tips for recovering from mistakes.

Hint #1 – (Over) Communicate
If you’re going to err, err on the side of over-communicating, not under-communicating. If you’ve got assumptions (“I assume you know that…”, or “I assume we’re both on the same page about…” etc.) say them out loud to give the other person an opportunity to either confirm or clarify to make sure everyone is on the same page. No one--I mean no one-- really knows what’s going on inside anyone else’s head. Assuming out loud can help us prevent gaffes before they happen.

Hint #2 – Be a First Responder
When an issue arises, be the first to respond. Especially in a PM-Sponsor relationship or a Vendor-Client relationship, pay attention to what’s going on. Listen to the peripheral context and the clues, and if you see a problem, be the first to bring it up. Try “Hey, it looks like there’s a blizzard coming our way, which will make the 8:00 AM start time tricky, how do you want to handle that?” or “It looks like the connection went down, we’re working to restore it and identify the problem” or “I’m hearing concerns being raised about…and I’d like to talk to you about how we handle them.” Taking the lead demonstrates both the ability and the desire to drive results.

Hint #3 – If You Can’t Be First, Be Fast
If, by some stroke of unfortunate luck, you’re not first to notice it, then respond as fast as you can. If the other person says “I noticed this” or “This has come to my attention” or “We’ve got an issue,” to the greatest extent possible, tap into all of your “move with purpose” skills—everything you’ve got to demonstrate urgency—and make every effort to connect with that person (phone if it’s fastest, or face-to-face, or voicemail, or email, or text if that’s all you’ve got) but something to connect with the person to let them know you’re there.

Hint #4 – Own It.
If there’s even the tiniest chance you have any sliver of accountability for any teensy tiny nuance of the current issue, then open with “I’m sorry.” If you think you have no accountability in the issue at all, first, think again. Then, if you really can’t come up with something you can apologize for, at least say “thanks for bringing it to my attention.” “I’m sorry”; “Thank you”; “Please.” All you really need to know, you learned in Kindergarten. Mom always taught me “I’m sorry” means “I feel so bad about how this played out that I’ll do my best never to let it happen again.” Surely there’s something you can own.

Hint #5 – Take Action.
Sure, you’re busy. We’re all busy. But when you’re fixing that “oops,” that oops is importantly and urgently your highest priority. Clear your calendar until it’s resolved, and give it the time and attention it needs. Let me rephrase – give that person the distinct impression that restoring their faith in you is more important than anything else you’re doing. It’s important, because without it, your influence is being eroded. It’s urgent, because how we deal with problems and challenges, and mistakes, and missteps defines how we are perceived. 

Hint #6 – Give It [More] Time than you think it will take…
Have you ever noticed how, when you’re trying to get that last document printed before you walk out the door to your next meeting, and you’re running a little late, and a little stressed, that’s the moment your printer decides to jam up or run out of ink? My Dad calls this an “urgency detector” and he insists all technology has a secretly embedded “urgency detector.” The cell phone that dies in the middle of the tough call; the printer that jams up; the wifi that just won’t connect; the projector that refuses to detect the “input” of your laptop…But I say that non-technical items are filled with "urgency detectors", too – the landline or doorbell that rings at the inopportune time, the coffee pot that spills over the side when you’re pouring in a hurry; the toddler who melts down right when you’re trying to get their shoes on…you get the idea. Here’s the thing: you’re stressed and frustrated, and Murphy’s Law says everything that can possibly go wrong, will. So plan on it – take a deep breath, and know that even the “easy stuff” like printing, hitting “send” on an email message, connecting to someone’s voicemail – it’s going to hit a snag. Just because Murphy says it will.

Hint #7 – Communicate.
When we’re busy solving a problem, we’re tempted to not talk about it (either because talking about it is uncomfortable for us, or because it takes precious minutes away from working on the solution. But if that’s the way we’re looking at communication, we’re looking at it backwards. Having those uncomfortable conversations is the only way we’ll really move forward in our relationship. And since lack of or failed communication continues to be the leading cause of pain in business, the minutes we INVEST in communication will pay back tenfold. Provide status updates at frequent intervals. Demonstrate that you’re taking action to fix it, and account for what you’re doing and what progress has been made. Let the affected individuals know that even if they don’t see you, they’re still your highest priority.

Hint #8 – Close It Down.
Solve the problem, close the issue, and wrap-up the communication. Bring closure to the situation with a (1) clear re-statement of what the issue was; (2) a deliberate but brief accounting of why that problem occurred; (3) a restating of your accountability – apologize as appropriate, and demonstrate what you’ve done to fix it; and (4) an invitation to close the lid on this one and move on.


How about you? What other hints would you add, to help recover when mistakes happen?

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thank you for the great tips!

Love this!

Thanks, MaryAnne! I'm glad they're useful to you! -Sinikka

Lin - so glad to hear it resonated with you! Thanks for making time to reply! -Sinikka

Thanks Sinikka
As a Builder that all makes for a good read.
Kind regards

Great tips! Thanks!

Thanks, Jeff for making time to reply! I imagine that as a Builder, you're pulled in different directions and not always in the same room where mistakes are discovered. "If you can't be first, be fast" has been a great way to help regain positive influence over a situation that happened when I wasn't in the room. I hope you find it useful! -Sinikka

Thanks, Dena B, for your response! I've found that Hint #8 (It will take more time than you think) has been a useful reminder to anticipate and plan for a snag in the resolution process. Sometimes by anticipating the snag, I can mitigate it - or at least be less frustrated by it! I hope the tips continue to be useful to you! -Sinikka

I will pass it to all my freinds, all of the world,
THANKS very much

Fekare, Thanks for the kind words and for sharing the message! I'm convinced that when each of us take just a little more time to own the problem, we all reach better solutions together! -Sinikka

Hint 6 reminds me of Star Trek's "Scotty Factor" from ST 3:

Kirk: "Mr. Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?"
Scotty: "Certainly, Sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?"

Funny Stuff, Eriel! Thanks for sharing! -Sinikka

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