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Back to the Drawing Board: How to Bounce Back After a Project Misstep

In the business world, mistakes are inevitable. When projects go sideways, these tips can help you get your team back on track.

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We’ve all heard it: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” But that’s much easier said than done.

I know from experience how it can feel when a project goes off the rails. Years ago, I was part of a 40-person team working to accelerate the pace of the U.K. criminal justice system — important work that could have impacted both victims and defendants. Despite years of effort and plenty of good intentions, the project failed; everyone on the team was left feeling defeated.

In hindsight, it’s clear why we weren’t successful: We wanted to build something perfect instead of something viable, and our plans were outside the reality of our resources. It took a lot of reflection before I could be honest with myself about what went wrong, and it took even more reflection to bounce back from the failure fully.

Turning Disappointment Into Fuel for Productivity

My experience with failure isn’t unique by any means. Everyone goes through career setbacks, and it usually happens more than once. In the aftermath of these setbacks, feelings of disappointment and confusion can cause your work life — and even your personal life — to suffer.

Those feelings aren’t uncommon, but they also aren’t healthy. The best way to move through them is by focusing on the future instead of dwelling on the past. By learning from past mistakes, you can avoid repeating them down the road.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, practiced this approach. He got his start working in social media with a site called SocialNet. When that project failed, Hoffman could have given up on innovating in the social media space altogether or tried to launch an identical site under a different brand. Instead, he learned from what went wrong, tried something different, and created an empire that raked in $6.8 billion in revenue last year. Failure isn’t always followed by success, but it’s counterproductive to dwell on what went wrong without also considering what could (or did) go right.

In my career, I’ve made a few incorrect assumptions. A good example: When my company was first developing our platform, Hive, I was convinced we needed a file-sharing feature — but the user data suggested otherwise. While it took me some time to admit that it wasn’t the best idea, I eventually accepted that we should move on and make the product the best it could be in other ways, like integrating mail and timesheets. It was the right choice for the product, the team, and the company, but I had to acknowledge my mistake first and then seize the opportunity to create something better.

Empowering People Through Failures

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to show employees at all levels how to be resilient and adaptable in the face of setbacks. Here are four ways to empower everyone in your organization to bounce back from missteps:

1. Conduct Biannual Reviews

It’s best to course-correct as early as possible, and reviews are a great opportunity to take action before small issues evolve into big ones. Having biannual reviews for all employees ensures that everyone receives the constructive feedback they deserve to help propel them forward.

2. Support Continuing Education

Education is a great way to encourage continued growth and to help employees hone additional skills. Encourage employees to seek out continued educational opportunities to further their interests and bolster their strengths, offering to support them as they go.

3. Deliver CEO Briefings

Monthly CEO briefings keep people focused on the issues that matter. They’re also a great opportunity to recognize individuals or teams for good work and to give the kind of positive reinforcement people need to recover from project failures.

4. Identify Hits and Misses

When projects end, encourage teams to clearly identify what went right and what could have gone better. By focusing on positives and negatives, employees can learn from unsuccessful efforts and figure out how to apply different strategies in the future.

Trying again after a project misstep is easier said than done. Resilience doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so it’s important to encourage employees to use their failures as a foundation for future greatness.

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