Pulling Success Out of Setbacks





To say we’ve had setbacks is an understatement. On just about every one of our major projects, there have been setbacks from the start, continuing on through every phase, including finding the right partner, negotiating the deal, staffing up, delivering, assessing and even winding down. I wouldn’t know what smooth sailing feels like.

Setbacks aren’t the same as failures. Failure is when you reach the point where you can’t continue on toward your goal; you’ve ended up on a dead-end track, and there’s no way to get from here to there. Setbacks, in contrast, can be part of your path to success—they may be detours from a straight-line route, but they might lie along a potentially viable route, leaving you with a way forward.

In fact, you could define success as the positive culmination of a series of setbacks. If you’re not encountering any hitches, either you’ve failed to lead your organization toward its most promising and therefore challenging opportunities, or you’re simply missing all the clues that setbacks are brewing.

Even though setbacks are part and parcel of success, they can still sink you if you don’t deal with them effectively. Here are my strategies for pushing past setbacks:

Establish an early warning system. It was when we failed to see trouble on the horizon that we were most badly bitten by a setback. In general, the sooner you start in on a fix, the more options you’ll have to avoid real damage. Everyone in the organization from the front lines to leadership should feel encouraged to report bad news immediately. We also solicit frank client feedback on an ongoing basis.

Measure. Sometimes you won’t be able to notice that things are slipping unless you’ve got good data at your fingertips. Setting up a solid measurement and analysis system can take real effort, but it will pay for itself many times over.

Don’t overreact. You want to move swiftly to assess your options and begin repairs, but often our first instinct when confronted with trouble is to do what turns out to be exactly the wrong thing. If you take drastic action before you understand what’s happening, you can make things worse.

Trust your team. It’s tempting for a leader to jump in and try to solve serious problems when they arise. But if you’ve done your job as a leader, you’ve put a team in place that deserves a shot at fixing things. Certainly you’ll want to provide guidance, support and resources, but that should be all you need to contribute, unless things continue to go downhill.

Don’t bail out prematurely. It’s hard to tell a setback from failure until you’re looking back on it. Better to assume it’s just a setback and pound away at the problem as long as you see options. One of our biggest challenges, for example, is a sudden shortage of talented, experienced people to staff a large, new collaboration. We don’t solve that problem as much as wear it down through recruiting, training, mentoring, shuffling positions, and much more.

Don’t make failure worse. All organizations encounter failure. Don’t flail and throw good money after bad, or place further demands on partners and clients who have clearly had enough. Back away as gracefully as possible, leaving as few bad feelings and wasted resources in your wake as possible.

Build an institutional memory. Every setback and failure comes with a build-up, warning signs, recognition of a problem, repair efforts, assessments, and good or poor results. Record these in a lessons-learned database that all managers can use, so that when history repeats itself, it’s to good end. -Steven J. Thompson, CEO at Johns Hopkins Medicine International, Senior Vice President Johns Hopkins Medicine

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