Anyone else see this epic "oops" in the April 12 edition of the New Yorker? You'd like to think one of the many people who had contact with this ad would have noticed that third arm. (OK, maybe they did and it was intentional, but I don't think so). Maybe someone did and didn't say anything. Or maybe nobody did because things were moving too fast. It doesn't really matter what happened. What matters is how you fix it.

A client recently proofed and approved a document we prepared. I made the first mistake as the writer, putting one state's name where another belonged. It wasn't caught in the back-read here because it was being reviewed for spelling, grammar and formatting errors. The client didn't notice in her proof (I didn't ask her why). And the last person to see it at our shop didn't have the background knowledge to know it was wrong. It was a perfect storm!

So it went out, error and all. Now, it wasn't a catastrophic miscue. We didn't send people to an incorrect venue or anything like that. In fact, most people probably wouldn't notice. But as soon as I did -- inevitably seconds *after* we posted a few announcements -- I corrected the source document and we re-posted the corrected version. Addressed, but still super-embarrassing.

In the old days, I would have done a full postmortem under the guise of keeping this from ever happening again. But I've given up that approach, because it doesn't really pay off. And I don't really think there was much we could have done to avoid this error except widening our tunnel vision. And I don't know how to make that a process.

Our goal is always to check, check and check again, but sometimes that system fails. We've decided to focus on our response when mistakes happen. We've been tinkering with an approach to handling stuff like this for a while. Then I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review*, which includes a handy four step process that we've been using for a few months (and have taped on the wall):

  • What features of the situation can I (even potentially) improve?
  • What sort of positive impact can I personally have on what happens next?
  • How can I contain the negatives of the situation and generate currently unseen positives?
  • What can I do to begin addressing the problem now?

I like this approach a lot because it builds trust. Instead of a ton of trust-killing checklists or procedures, we set clear standards and trust each other to do our best to meet them. When we come up short (and we all do at some point), I'm not interested in blaming anyone. I'm interested in moving forward constructively and rapidly.

How do you handle problems, errors, crises? If you're looking for an effective way that rewards smart action and builds trust and capacity, I encourage you to try this one -- and let me know how it goes.

* The article's not available for free, but you can download it here for $6.50. Or visit your local library and check out the January 2010 issue.