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Going From Setback to Bounce Back

Failing fast.

Sounds good in theory but in practice it can feel very wrong—and be very painful.

For most of our lives we’ve been told that failure is not an option. So despite the obvious benefits of experimentation, bouncing back from failure—much less bouncing back “fast”—remains a lofty ideal. And the challenges of failing fast are magnified when you’re dealing with teams of people each with their own personal investment in the success of a project.

So how can leaders make failing fast a part of the culture? The first step is shifting to a positive perception of failure. Here are a few simple tools from my book Lead Positive to help you, the leader, make this shift and inspire a culture of fail-fast resilience in your organization.

From Setback to Bounce Back

Failure is only feedback as to what you need to do differently.

Leaders have a tremendous amount of responsibility to demonstrate that they can and will bounce back after a failure. What you do will be contagious—for better or worse. What is more, your resilience will give your team a reason to trust your leadership, to trust that you have what it takes to prevail over barriers large and small.

Think about moments in your past as when you showed resilience. Zone in on what you did and what you learned. Reminding yourself of how failure has served you in the past will help you to bounce back once again.

To illustrate how this exercise works, I have used an example from one of my consulting clients.

Step 1: Describe the setback

We were experimenting with offering a new service to Fortune 100 clients. Our first sale was a huge $350,000 contract. We staffed the project and booked the revenue in our budget, and then… the client canceled because of a budget crisis.

Step 2: Describe your initial feelings and thoughts about the setback.

What I saw: A gigantic revenue hole.
What I felt: Totally blindsided. But at the same time, I was empathetic with our client contact. I could see she really hated being the bearer of bad news.
What I thought: How are we going to dig ourselves out of this hole?

Step 3: Describe how you bounced back. What did you see, say and do?

What we (my team) saw: The need to connect to our client during their economic downturn.
What we said: We told the client we would agree to cancel the engagement with no financial penalties.
What we did: We invited our client contact to the free seminars that we now had time to offer to existing and prospective clients.

Step 4: Describe how you gained lost ground

We used our downtime from the canceled contract to market to new clients while cutting our expenses to the bone. It took three months for us to bounce back, to get out of the red. But that setback experience served us well.

We learned the hard way the importance of starting small and diversification when experimenting with a new service. We now have a more diversified client base with more reliable cash flow and a much wider range of client feedback on how to keep on improving the service.

Most importantly, we now know that we can bounce back from a $350k loss in revenue. It remains a source of great pride.

ASA Shift: A Team Exercise

“Action is the antidote to despair.” – Singer Joan Baez

When failure happens, it is easy to feel disappointed and disheartened. To disrupt a negative downward spiral use the ASA Shift: Acknowledge, Scan, and Act.

By acknowledging the negative, scanning for ways you can benefit from the setback, and acting in new ways to realize that possible benefit, you ensure you and your team are in the right frame of mind to move forward. (Read more on the ASA shift here, here, and here)

As a leader, you always go first. Now, talk to your team about what you learned from your ASA shift. Be honest about the negative thoughts you may have had, but don’t dwell.

Next, ask each person on the team to do the exercise as well.

Last, come together to share each other’s thoughts, to collectively acknowledge the negative, and to collaborate on the positive actions you can take to move forward. The different perspectives and contributions to the exercise will make the process all the more valuable.

Make this your team’s routine practice for taking action after failure.

Dr. Kathy Cramer

Kathryn D. Cramer, PH.D.
Founder and Managing Partner, The Cramer Institute