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Problem-Solving Success Tip - Acknowledge Setbacks and Adjust
by Jeanne Sawyer

If the problem you are working on is significant, you will run into trouble along the way--count on it. Maybe you'll find that your problem definition is too narrow or too broad. Maybe you'll find that you missed a key root cause, or misjudged the importance of the causes you did identify. Maybe you'll find that your corrective action didn't, in fact, eliminate a root cause. When one or more of these happen to you, recognize what has happened and tell your stakeholders, then back up in the problem-solving process and try again.

Of course, you can also run into the usual risks for any significant project such as key people leaving, priority changes, etc. Setbacks are a normal part of the problem-solving process, but nevertheless can be very discouraging, especially if you think you're nearing the end of the project when you run into them.

There are two special dangers to watch out for. First is the ostrich effect, where you don't allow yourself to see the setback or persuade yourself that it's so minor it will take care of itself. The danger here is rather obvious: if you don't acknowledge the setback to yourself, then you won't do anything to recover.

The second danger is to underestimate the impact on your project, and to try to recover quietly so nobody will know that you experienced the setback. Successful problem-solving efforts require open and honest communication among the members of the problem-solving team and with other stakeholders. Trying to hide setbacks destroys your credibility in the long run and limits your options for getting the problem-solving effort back on track. When you communicate a setback to your stakeholders, acknowledge the setback, but also stress what you are doing (or have already done) to address it.

The more quickly you recognize and acknowledge a setback, the sooner you can do something constructive about it, both in taking appropriate corrective action and in communicating the situation.

Copyright 2009. Jeanne Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanne Sawyer may be contacted at

Sawyer is an author, consultant, trainer and coach who helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Find out about it, and get more free information on problem solving at her web site:


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