The Master of Disaster

man with hand on temple looking at laptop
Photo by bruce mars on

Nobody likes making mistakes; then again, nobody’s perfect. So if you’re a human being, there’s no escaping the fact that things are not always going to go the way you want them to.

I was publisher of Quality Digest for more than a decade. That experience taught me that quality systems exist not to eliminate problems, which is impossible, but to surface those issues in a timely fashion so that corrective actions can be put into place. Then, when variants of those same issues (or other issues that you didn’t anticipate) arise, you correct them again. Wash, rinse, repeat. That’s why the phrase “continuous improvement” is so descriptive–because excellence is a never-ending journey that requires eternal vigilance.

Last year I worked on a project that, through no fault of my own (I hope) didn’t turn out exactly as planned. The materials I sent to the client for review and approval in time for the campaign kickoff were summarily rejected, necessitating an almost complete re-think of my part of the project, just days away from the deadline.

As mentioned, I’m still not sure if the genesis of the problem was with me or the client, but that hardly mattered. The issue was real and time was short, so I rearranged my day and rewrote the content in a few hours, to the great relief of the client as well as a team of editors warily watching me unscrew the screw-up from a distance.

Never, not once, did I push back, grumble, or recriminate to anyone outside of my immediate circle (my dogs did end up getting an earful that morning, however). I was calm and methodical, reassuring everyone that the problem was solvable, which, in fact, it was. I was the master of the disaster, mostly by refusing to admit that it was a disaster at all.

I have made one or two (million) mistakes in my life and career. The only ones that really stung with lasting effect were those about which I argued with the client or colleague involved. It’s important to know why an error occurred; any quality professional will tell you that a thorough root cause analysis after the fact is critical, but in real time why something happened doesn’t really matter. You just have to fix it as soon as possible, and show your stakeholders that your immediate corrective action is leading to results.

Those stakeholders will almost always give you the grace to make right whatever has gone astray. Even more, when you take fast and effective action, professionally and without casting blame, you will often find a significant increase in the affinity that internal and external customers feel toward you. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone can correct them and make people feel even better about you than did in the first place.

Quality doesn’t mean perfection, but it does demand accountability.


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