We all stuff up …

As much as I might insist to my children that I am infallible (cue sighs and rolling eyes) I must admit sometimes I make mistakes … E-bloody-normous ones. If you’ve been working in the game of delivering complex software for any time you all know how that’s possible, even probable. The true measure of a professional is how you deal with it. I was reminded of this by a great post today by Brian Harry of Microsoft who was responsible for delivering a rather complicated piece of functionality and had some problems after implementation. Don’t worry about the techy side of the post, although if you are into it, it makes an interesting read on the problems of designing for the cloud. He presents a text-book approach to dealing with a stuff-up in a pretty admirable way:

  1. Accept that an error was made. There’s nothing worse than trying to hide or deny a mistake. They know it, you know it.
  2. Take responsibility. Don’t pass the buck. Customers will respond by offering you their loyalty if you are honest with them (and obviously don’t bugger it up too often). Your team will respond with loyalty when you are not sending them down the river when mistakes are made.
  3. Look after your team during resolution. Nothing harms quick resolution than panic and screaming. Allow them to focus. Analysis requires concentration and it’s hard when the pressure is on. Accordingly a good manager is someone who allows their team to do their work.
  4. Fix the problem. Do it calmly. Obviously if it’s a big problem you will be in full panic mode but try to ignore the panic and focus.
  5. Communicate. Explain why the error was made clearly. Don’t make excuses, that just annoys people. People will forgive if they understand why the mistake was made.
  6. Apologise. An apology is a recognition that a mistake was made and is a commitment to try to not make the same mistake again. The really good developer (craftsman, teacher, manager, …) is one that doesn’t make that mistake again.

Now for a bit of a folksy interlude … I grew up on sheep and cattle stations in rural NSW. My dad threw me on the back of a horse before I could walk. Despite retreating into a definitely urban existence for most of my adulthood a couple of things stand out from the lessons he taught me about horse riding. If you ride a horse you are going to fall off, accept it. You will not be a good rider till you’ve fallen off a hundred times. Get back on the horse!

Read Brian’s post.

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