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The Best Way to Avoid Your Next Business Disaster Diagnose your problem in six steps.

By Jenn Steele Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


What do you do when things in your business go exactly opposite to plan? If your launch goes splat or the marketing campaign that was supposed to make the hockey-stick happen falls on deaf ears, you may find yourself wondering where exactly everything went wrong. Unfortunately, many businesses simply charge ahead to the next project rather than diagnosing what happened, which significantly increases their chances of the next big project going splat too.

Instead of charging forward and risking another disaster, many businesses would be better served by taking a couple of days to think about and diagnose what happened. Based on my own experiences with ho-hum launches and ugly rollouts, I've come up with a simple framework for disaster diagnosis. While I've used the 5 Whys before, I find that this framework digs deeper into the disaster, helps identify problems with both strategy and execution and produces more effective learnings and action items.

One caveat before we look at this framework -- the beginning steps of this process will be massively frustrating at first for people who identify more as "fixers" than "understanders." Fixers are people who get most of their professional satisfaction from jumping right in and coming up with solutions, versus understanders who get more satisfaction from understanding how every piece fits together. Because I am a fixer myself, it took me a very long time to see the value in suspending my problem-solving mode until we wallowed in the problem for a bit.

With that caveat out of the way, let's look at the six-step process that will help you diagnose a disaster:

Step 1: What happened?

Without agreement on what exactly happened, your diagnosis won't get anywhere. Even if your process starts with an email from your CEO that says, "Hey guys, the bobby sock marketing campaign isn't getting any press. What happened?" -- your stakeholders still need to agree that the problem was with the bobby sock campaign and that the fundamental issue is lack of press, rather than lack of adoption. In other words, you need the problem statement.

In this step, you need your stakeholders to agree on the problem statement, and define the gap in the metrics between what you expected to happen and what actually happened. Of course, you may discover that you never set clear objectives and metrics to start with, which you should remember for step four. However, for an example with metrics, your bobby sock problem statement and metrics might read something like, "We launched the bobby sock marketing campaign, and it fell short of our expectations. We expected a 10 percent month-over-month increase in site visits, a 10 percent lift in inbound leads and three press write-ups. We saw a two percent month-over-month decrease in site visits, zero lift in inbound leads and only one press write-up."

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Step 2: What did we do?

The second step is to figure out how you executed the project, and make sure everyone in the room understands the steps that lead up to it. Things can get a little touchy at this step. To try to avoid shouting matches, don't talk about what process you were supposed to follow -- document what actually happened. This isn't a time to start pointing fingers or talk about why your original process broke.

You may want to appoint a moderator who can stop the conversation when it gets heated or moves into how the process broke. You'll also want internal teams to prepare for this in advance. Coming into this meeting with timelines that your teams prepared separately in safer environments can make this step move quickly. At the end of this step, you want a simple narrative or timeline of what happened when. To continue our bobby sock example, you might have a timeline from marketing leading up to launch that shows all of the key events, like when the PR agency became involved and when the ads launched.

Step 3: Who was involved?

In this step, you're simply listing what teams, contractors and agencies were involved with the disastrous project. These should ideally map to each item in step two. If they don't, you may have missed items that belong in your step 2 list. Be very careful not to point fingers or start playing the blame game; this is merely a list of who did what, and you don't want to miss anyone. If you have a moderator, he or she can help ensure you stay on-topic. Because you have a high-level timeline from step 2, this may be very simple to execute.

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Step 4: What broke?

Now that you know the what, when and who, you can finally start talking about what went wrong with your strategy and/or execution. What false assumptions did you make? What balls did you drop? How did the actual timeline differ from the project plan? Who did we forget to involve? What external factors influenced the disaster? Assuming you reached an agreement fairly quickly in step 1, this will likely be the longest step of the meeting.

This step can be cathartic to both fixers and understanders -- fixers because we finally feel like we're getting to something that we can fix, and understanders because you're finally getting to the root of the problem. Unfortunately, this step can also be wildly contentious, since some people in the room might start pointing fingers. It can be helpful to have the moderator lead the discussion by stepping the team through the timeline or starting with a brainstorm and interrupt when things start getting out of hand.

At the end of this step, you want a point-by-point breakdown of everything that broke in the process, even if you only discovered that it broke given later information. You also want to avoid documenting how to fix each step (frustrating for folks like me, but necessary). Going back to the bobby sock campaign, you might express one of the broken execution steps as, "We learned after launch that our PR agency needed a four-week lead time, but we only gave them notice two weeks before," or one of the broken strategy steps as, "We made our primary focus getting support from analysts when we should have focused on telling stories through media."

Step 5: What could we have done differently?

Here is where the fixers can finally breathe a true sigh of relief, since it's finally time to start talking about fixing the problems. Your goal in this step is to address each point in step four with what the stakeholders agree that you could have done to keep things from breaking. In the bobby sock campaign, addressing the point above about the PR agency lead time, you would see something like, "In order to give the PR agency a four-week lead time, we could have started on the messaging two weeks earlier." While this will be less contentious, you probably still want to have the moderator around to keep things from degenerating by reminding everyone that hindsight is 20/20.

Related: Want to Have True Impact as an Entrepreneur? Master These 6 Things.

Step 6: What needs to change moving forward?

Finally, you'll create a list of action items and process changes that will hopefully keep you from having future disasters occur in exactly the same way this one did. Each item should address one of the points in steps five and six, have a defined owner, have a due date, and have a channel by which the owner will communicate completion or questions with the team (e.g., slack channel, email or follow-up meeting). Once you have all of the changes and reporting defined, everyone can finally leave the room and get a much-needed drink!

Be warned, however, that you may not end up with any sort of action items as a result of this process. This doesn't mean that the diagnosis has failed; it means that, despite your best efforts, your project didn't perform up to expectations. While this is rare, you should accept it, move on with your business, and keep in mind that flops happen sometimes.

Disasters are never fun, and emails from your CEO asking you about them are significantly less so. Stepping through the diagnosis will probably be contentious and painful, since no one ever likes to dwell on failure. However, going through the process and making changes to your future strategy and execution can keep disasters from happening quite as often.

Jenn Steele

Director of Product Marketing, Indix

Jenn Steele is director of product marketing at Indix, a product intelligence platform that helps ecommerce businesses make smart product decisions. She previously worked for Amazon and HubSpot and holds degrees from MIT and Simmons School of Management.

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