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How To Handle Failures And Setbacks At Work With Grace Revisit every step and every decision you and your team made in the project and micro-inspect

By Niraj Ranjan

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A startup founder, or any professional for that matter, would have had some close calls and setbacks, no doubt; but not everyone deals with them in the best possible way. One of my favourite example is that of Twitter's - despite its frequent crashes, they have managed to navigate such setbacks quite elegantly.

Your list of failures and setbacks make your story sound inspiring in retrospection, but when you are caught up in the middle of one, it doesn't feel all that great, does it?!

Often times, we tend to wait for the setback/failure to pass before we can move on. Very few times do we actually take up the reigns and deal with the failure head on. Acknowledging it and taking proactive mental and physical action to minimize the effect or the damage is what "handling' a failure gracefully really means.

Here are some tips and thoughts that may help you get started:

1. Yes you have to move on, but not before you discover the reason

Of course, we want to forget about our failure as quickly as possible and simply move on. A good idea, except, if you don't take the time to figure out what went wrong, you might end up repeating the same mistake again.

So the first step to fail with grace is to understand and thoroughly analyse every small detail in the project to figure out what caused the failure.

The first marketing campaign I launched for my startup did not do very well. We had begun with a "Product first' philosophy and paid relatively less attention to marketing. But the results and trials since then have helped us understand not only the importance of a solid marketing plan, but also how to achieve good marketing results.

Here are some ways you can get started:

  • Use analytics and data to locate any anomalies or patterns that could have caused the failure (where relevant).

  • Revisit every step and every decision you and your team made in the project and micro-inspect. This way you may find the reasons for your failure, but you may also be able to figure the strategies/decisions that worked and that you can reuse in future.

  • Understand that sometimes, even if you did everything right from your end, unavoidable external circumstances could have caused the failure. If that is the case, understand, accept, and move on.

2. Know when to cut off the arm

Often, leaders and managers can recognize failure way before it actually happens. Living in your own cave and failing to accept reality quickly enough is a major reason for the inaction.

There really is nothing less graceful than pure foolish denial. Coming to terms with the situation quickly is important because you may still have enough time to turn things around, if you are willing to cut off the arm.

Blackberry's failure is one example of what being oblivious to failure for too long can cost you. Even though it was apparent that customers preferred touch screens, the company was still producing keypad mobiles. Of course, this was only one of the many reasons for its failure.

Keep in mind:

  • Constantly monitor results when implementing a new idea/plan/project. For example, when you introduce a new customer service strategy, even before you launch it, have some metrics in place. This can show you where your plan is headed well in advance, giving you the time to take counter measures.

  • Charlie Munger said, "Every reality must respect every other reality'; It's not enough to have a great product, factoring in external factors such as the market, demand etc is important.

  • Even if you see a tiny dip in your results, take the time to analyse why. Ignorance can be fatal.

3. Handle the pressure from your team and your boss

So the new project failed and it's time to explain to your boss what happened, or to have a "talk' with your team about what went wrong.

These are tough talks, but quite necessary. Instead of avoiding them or running away, you have to quickly deal with and put them to rest. Say your team is all gloomy and has lost their morale because of the failure, it is upto you to keep your head clear and help your team get through it.

Here are some ways you can deal with your team and boss:

  • Discuss with your team about what went wrong and what went right. Appreciate them for their hard work.

  • Push them to think of remedies for this problem. What steps can they take to minimize damage or what new project can help them overcome the losses faced in this one etc.

  • When speaking to your boss, point out what exactly went wrong and have solutions and countermeasures ready.

4. Openly address and admit your failure

Don't try to cover it up. Instead, openly admit to it and focus on making up for the failure.

Here's an example: Flipkart, an e-commerce giant in India, once ran a sale marathon where you could get products for nearly 1/5th of their original price and on the day of the sale, all the products started showing "Out of stock' sign within the first 20 mins.

Customers were obviously livid and claimed to have been scammed by Flipkart. Maybe it was a scam, but how Flipkart dealt with their mistake/failure is admirable.

The CEO of the company dropped an email to all the customers admitting that they did a bad job at handling the sale and weren't really prepared enough to handle the traffic and apologized for it.

This style of addressing the elephant in the room and putting the issue to rest openly is an elegant way to handle failure, instead of pretending that nothing wrong happened.

Wrapping up

With the startup culture setting in and advocating the fail fast learn fast ideology, we now know that failing is nothing to be overly worried or embarrassed about. Yet, we still have trouble handling our failures gracefully. We just shun them away and hope that no one noticed it.

A more practical and less taxing way is to deal with it outrightly and to learn to be comfortable with it. As cliched as that sounds, it's practically impossible to completely dodge failures, so why not learn to be at peace with it?!

Niraj Ranjan

Co-founder and CEO, Hiver

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