Big 'Epic Fails' Can Feel Like a Punch in the Gut. What Should You Do After?
Having recently experienced the type of potentially dream-ending epic failures that can easily creep into and take over an otherwise can-do mindset, I decided put all the advice I have received over the past decade to the test. I have written and talked a lot about failure and its significance in the process of disrupting for years. The topic is hard to avoid in the world of innovating new ideas, of pushing the limits to make a dent in something bigger than yourself. And, while it’s true what people with entrepreneurial mindsets seem to all know: failure may just be our biggest opportunity to learn and to create something extraordinary.
While this might be true (and I do believe it is), when you create and experience a very public, very exposing epic failure, it might not be so easy to neutralize and learn, at least not right away. Trust me when I say, you can do it. If I can, anyone can. Here’s how:
Step 1: Respond to your key stakeholders with sincerity and personal accountability
Whether it’s a client, a boss or your team, don’t wait to reach out. The key is to learn all of the facts first. Together with your team, iterate a heart-felt and honest response before the end of the day via email or in preparation for a live conversation. It is important not to let more than a few hours pass so that your client and your team can see that you place a heightened yet thoughtful sense of urgency. Blame does not matter and there is no room to take a tit-for-tat approach, nor to overly explain the reasons for the perceived or qualified failure. Instead, take personal accountability for the negative experiences and/or outcomes expressed by your client. Thoughtfully respond with words that explicitly reflect the examples of failure relayed by your clients. Reiterate your company’s mission and your personal commitment to ensuring customer delight. If it makes sense, offer to refund a portion of the costs.
Step 2: Give yourself a set amount of time to grieve
Confusion, embarrassment, fear and sadness of being let down and of letting yourself and others down tend to get in the way. The shoulda, coulda, wouldas tend to be some of the earlier reactions. This reaction is normal and perfectly fine, despite contrary advice. Go ahead and cry. Go ahead and hide in embarrassment and shame if that is what you want to do. If you stay in this state, you can’t move on. I decided to give myself three days to go through all the sadness, shame and doubt that I could muster. Of course, times will vary based on the person and situation. My suggestion, don’t go past a week. Doom and gloom is harder to get rid of the longer it lingers.
Step 3: Get back to what is important
You experienced the epic fail because you were working to make a dent in living your personal and/or professional mission. It’s very easy and probably quite human to spend too much time translating an epic fail into a personal failure and living only inside of your head. Refocus on the world outside of you, on moving the needle of impact toward the direction of your goal. Remember that you are a leader with people counting on you. When you redirect your brain to the world around you, you lay the groundwork to get out of your own way.
Step 4: Commit to learning, break it down, dig deep
Break down the entire experience leading up to the epic failure. Work backwards from the purpose of the engagement or work. With that in mind, break down every step, every conversation, every decision related to the key milestones. Ask yourself what worked in getting your client, your team, and you closer to the agreed upon outcomes. Strive to understand the capacity, people, process and technology components that worked well. Then apply that same method on what led to the failure. Don’t look for what is not there, either positive or negative. Ask your team and yourself to reserve judgment and instead practice observation. This is a great step to exercise and strengthen individual and collective emotional intelligence.
Step 5: Put on the hat and the sneakers of a professional athlete
Today is a new day. It’s time to get back in there. Take your lessons learned and incorporate the appropriate changes into how you and your team work. When an Olympic athlete has a bad training or competition day, she does not fold in the towlel. She and her coaching team learn from what works, what does not and use that information to cease behaviors and actions that no longer serve, commence new practices and beliefs needed to not repeat the same failure, and continue doing what is still working. Remember that you are a leader. Optics matter. If you continue to hang onto failure in an emotional way, your internal and external stakeholders will follow suit.