When Things Don't Go as Planned, Step One Is to Presume Goodwill

by Bill Sanders, Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder is often credited with the quote; "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy." While that is actually a paraphrase of what he said, we all know experientially that things don't go as planned. Mistakes happen, co-workers don't keep their commitments, and outside factors intervene. Having a "great work culture" doesn't prevent workplace contretemps and other misadventures, but how you address them should strengthen the culture. Step one is to presume goodwill.

The source of things not going as planned is multitude and yet, in my experience, very few internal issues are intentional. While many employees may indeed be less than fully engaged, I've rarely come across one whose purpose in going to work was to derail the company. Therefore, most mistakes and issues aren't intentional and the people involved deserve the benefit of the doubt, i.e., the presumption of goodwill.

Here are two primary ways that you can reinforce the presumption of goodwill.

Never Shoot the Messenger

Prevention is always less expensive than correction. Correction is always less expensive than failure. The earlier in any project or operation that you can identify a potential problem, the cheaper it is to address. This is commonly known as the 1-10-100 rule as it can cost 100 times as much to do failure work as it costs to prevent the problem in the first place.

One of our agency clients recently won a large project that they were justifiably proud of having won. However, in the process of defining the project it became rapidly apparent that client and agency expectations were well out of alignment. The lead project manager and creative director quickly raised the issue and set about realigning with the client. Had they not caught this and raised it immediately, our estimates are that the agency would have lost somewhere between $200k-$250k on the project.

As it behooves us to have as early of a warning as possible, creating a culture where team members feel both safe and comfortable in bringing up potential issues is critical.

Always Look for Cause

The only way to truly address an issue is to identify and understand its cause. Several years ago, I was tasked with helping an ecommerce company identify the source of a mispricing error that had resulted in several tens of thousands of dollars in losses. Their pricing process for sale items involved a rather Byzantine workflow that required several automated steps as well as direct human intervention steps. The manager was rightly concerned that something was systemically wrong with the system and I spent a week interviewing the team members both individually and as a group to trace through the process and identify what went wrong and where.

In a team meeting as I presented where we were in the process of identifying the cause, it became clear that we were step-by-step eliminating the automated systems and that the likely cause was a mistake by one of the team members. As I looked around the room, it was clear that one of the junior members of the team was extremely distressed. I closed the meeting as quickly as possible and then confronted her privately. She admitted that she had made the pricing error and that she'd known she had made the mistake all along, but was afraid she would be fired. From her perspective, I was looking for someone to blame for the loss when in fact the manager had asked me to identify the cause so we could be certain that we could prevent future incidents. Had we better communicated our intent (to identify cause - not to identify whom to blame) and purpose (to prevent it from happening again - not to punish), it's quite possible that she would have felt more comfortable taking responsibility early on and saving several man-weeks of time for the company as well as dramatically decreasing her own stress level.

The presumption of goodwill can be demonstrated and reinforced in many ways, but these are two of the simplest and most effective. They require no capital investment and no changes to systems or processes. They do however require that the presumption of goodwill actually be present.

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a boutique consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness: co-founder and Advisory Board Member of Will Someone, software that facilitates and supports team alignment through commitments: and Co-Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.