A Simple Guide to Dealing with Mistakes

The art of extracting good from a bad, self-inflicted situation

This week has seen the most unexpected and inexplicable political decision of my lifetime. Sat very firmly in a London, liberal, creative bubble I believe a mistake has been made by Britain as a population, that leaves us in a weaker position than we were on Thursday morning.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to try and comment on the political landscape as there’s lots of people much better places to give some analysis of what’s next for Britain.

However, with this week’s results fresh in the memory, I felt compelled to add an article to my archive here about some good experiences of self-inflicted mistakes or set-backs we’ve experienced, to (perhaps feebly) try to round this week off with some positivity.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of running their own business knows that you’re going to mess things up from time to time. No matter how well set-up or prepared you are, it’s an unavoidable fact.

If you’re brave enough to put yourself out there and try to build something great, you’re going to have to stretch yourself, take on some things that are a bit out of your comfort zone, maybe on a tricky timeline with too many unknowns, and inevitably you’ll mess a few of them up.

We’ve made some big(ish) mistakes along the way with It’s Nice That and INT Works, but I wanted to write about one in particular that has had a lasting impact on who we are and how we behave as a business.

It’s not whether you’re going to make mistakes (you always are) — it’s how you react to those mistakes that’s important

So, I’ll set the scene: a brand new, exciting client, a good brief, well-suited to us, with a solid budget and a reasonable timeline. Gold-dust to a small agency looking to grow.

We were commissioning a physical sculpture for a gallery space, something we‘d never really done before, but feeling out of our comfort zone is something we always embrace.

The process went well enough, ideas signed off simply, brilliant collaborators idenified, and into production we went.

My next real memory of the project was the sinking feeling in my stomach after speaking to the artist we were working with, hearing that not only was the work going to be a few hours late, it was going to be very late (to the tune of 3 weeks). This call happened one day before we were delivering and no problems had been mentioned in the run-up to this conversation.

Essentially we had given a bit too much trust, and a bit too much freedom and taken our eye off the ball, over-excited about working with a new artist and learning about a new process. We could have done loads to counter it which is plainly obvious and not worth going into (of course we could have checked-in more thoroughly, done something simpler or not commissioned someone we’d never worked with before)

But, rather than dwell on those things, we had a very short amount of time to try and make amends.

In my complete despair, I had some brilliant advice, a motivational speech from someone very close to me at a perfect time.

I was told by one of our close advisors on the phone.

“You’ve lost the chance to impress with how on-time, and reliable you are, but you have a new one that shows how you react when the chips are down! Brilliant!”

“And you don’t get this one very often. Make the most of it.”

The reaction felt perverse, almost sick in it’s positivity at a time when I was rock bottom but also weirdly galvanising.

So here’s what we decided to do, and these simple things seem to work as a brilliant check-list for dealing with any self-inflicted mistakes I’ve ever made:

  1. Admit it, as early as possible, in person, yourself (I phoned the client immediately, booked a time to meet and went round to see them at 7.30am and explained the situation)
  2. Work tirelessly on an interim solution (we worked through the night to produce a miniature version of the piece to make sure something could be presented by our client to his team during the delay for him to save face)
  3. Re-gain control of the situation yourself. (We took the production of the piece back under our wing, at huge financial cost— making sure the same thing didn’t happen twice)
  4. Apologise. Easy to forget in the panic, but it’s important to not forget to say sorry. This is your fault.
  5. (And most important) After the event put some learnings down on paper quickly and tweak processes so that it never happens again.

As always in most of my management career I’ve looked to football to make sense of such situations and for a different context, one seems very apt.

In 2012, on the last day of the Premier League season Manchester United lose the title to Manchester City, not by a point, but on goal difference (for those of you who don’t follow sport, essentially losing based on the amount of goals minus the amount you’ve conceded over the course of the season). Crippling. A monumental mistake for United, famed for free-flowing attacking football, never before have they struggled to score goals in the modern era (Van Gaal aside), let alone have it be their ultimate downfall.

So, following this, taking the post-match interviews on the chin, congratulating the opposition, Ferguson dedicated his summer to making sure his team were full of goals in 2013.

Rather than sticking to his usual development of youngsters to blood in the first team, he needed to be in complete control of the situation. So, he buys one of the Premier League’s most reliable goal-scorers, Robin Van Persie. £28million for a 29-year-old, again unheard of for Ferguson, but he guaranteed goals.

Needless to say, Van Persie was a huge success, ending as the Premier League’s top goalscorer and United winning the title by much more than goal difference.

It also showed that everyone makes mistakes (even the most successful managers), and mistakes can give us a new opportunity that can’t be wasted. And everything must be done to re-gain control of the situation.

Needless to say, my mistake cost us some reputation, but that client ended up being our biggest ever agency client as he knew he could trust us to deliver, even when things were going wrong.

A silver lining to a cloud, and I have some blind faith that despite our seemingly terrifying mistake as a nation, we will also find a new opportunity for success.

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