Managing through a project mistake

Apr 16, 2023

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When mistakes happen, it can be difficult to look for the silver lining, but doing so and making the most of it will help your business now and in the future.

An old adage goes something like this: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not working.” So even with the very best systems and talent in place, it follows that architecture, engineering, and construction folks who are working hard are going to make mistakes. With this in mind, how we deal with those mistakes is typically more impactful than the mistake itself.

At Choice One Engineering, we look to improve ourselves and our client relationships by looking at errors as opportunities for improvement, growth, and strengthening trust. Here’s how:

  • Admit to your mistakes. Whether internally to your own team or externally to clients or agencies, owning up is best done sooner than later. Hiding mistakes not only prolongs the problem but creates distrust among your peers and clients. Hiding a mistake suggests mistrust of the client’s/coworker’s reaction and fear of repercussion, whereas owning your mistake will be the most effective “recovery” of that relationship and can make or break whether you are able to maintain that relationship for the long-term.
    Our firm believes in the idea that people don’t expect perfection, but people also don’t expect avoidance, which fosters a culture of being willing to admit mistakes readily. This approach to owning mistakes can be a differentiator for your business. An undesirable reputation could otherwise derive from doing what is “typical” or “what every other firm would do” (avoidance, concealment, or making an insurance claim) versus boldly stepping up and owning the mistake and working quickly toward a solution. Everyone makes mistakes, and it is likely your client has experience with your competitor making a mistake at some point. Use this as a differentiator, because they will recognize how much better you made their life while working through the mistake than their other consultants.
  • Don’t waste time pointing fingers. Instead, use that time to create solutions and make a plan to move forward and correct what’s gone wrong. If a structure was missed during a survey or a slope miscalculated on a drainage plan, get with the client as soon as possible, and include them in the discussion with how to move forward. Too often in our industry the effort is put toward skirting responsibility for fear of liability or attempting to save face, therefore blame is placed on another consultant, the client, or the contractor. Don’t be that consultant. Admit the mistake was made and ask, “How do we move forward and what path will rectify this situation effectively and as quickly as possible?” Money out of your firm’s pocket to remove and replace a mis-designed curb or catch basin is far less of a cost than losing a great client because they were left with a problem and had to figure out what to do with it.
  • Consider the phrase “we have insurance for that” a last resort. No offense to the professional liability insurance firms out there, but regardless of how great they are (and we feel we work with the best), insurance is best paid and used for cataclysmic-type events. Professional liability insurance can be utilized to supplement efforts in remedying a situation, but shouldn’t be the only solution. Work, however, to avoid making clients deal with the paperwork and timelines that come with an insurance claim when possible. To encourage a “fewer claims” mindset, consider raising your deductible, which puts more skin in the game and therefore drives more interest and effort in helping resolve the solution quickly while keeping premiums lower. The idea here is to inspire willingness to jump in and help solve the issue versus making a claim, which likely will end up leading to fewer claims in total.
    There are benefits to this approach beyond insurance premiums and client retention. When your coworkers or employees experience a mistake situation handled with honesty and transparency, they see it is OK to make mistakes. This makes them more comfortable taking on new responsibilities or trying an exciting new idea than if they are constantly worried about being fired if something goes wrong. If your project managers don’t admit mistakes to your clients, the design team won’t admit mistakes to the project manager. This becomes a downward spiral of mistakes being made and hidden internally that eventually get through to the final product, resulting in loss of clients and a bad reputation.
  • Expose mistakes companywide in internal communications or meetings. Seeing that everyone makes mistakes will help others readily come forward for help rather than try to hide something that goes wrong, not to mention helps prevent the same mistake in the future. By offering empathetic help willingly, better relationships among your team can be achieved on many levels.

No one likes to make mistakes, and we wish we could say this was all theoretical, but we can point to several long-term clients where mistakes were made early on in the relationship that could have spelled the end before it really began. However, our clients appreciated our approach and acknowledged other firms wouldn’t have been so quick to jump in and make it right. That mattered to them, and we believe that will continue to matter.

When mistakes happen, it can be difficult to look for the silver lining, but doing so, and making the most of it, will help your business now and in the future. Helping an upset client see that you have taken responsibility and are eager to make amends and share in the costs should build that relationship far beyond what a perfect design may. Think of some of the most challenging times in your life – did you grow more? Did you appreciate your coworkers, friends, and family more through those times? Did you learn to have empathy for others in similar situations? All of this is possible with clients as well. A client we can say “this is a mistake, and we want to figure out how to make it right” to is a happier, more loyal client than one who hears “I’m sorry, but we’re not responsible!” 

Matt Hoying, P.E. is president of repeat Best Firm To Work For Award winner Choice One Engineering, a civil engineering, landscape architecture, and surveying firm in western Ohio. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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