No matter how much goal-setting, mission-driving, motivating, and process implementation you do, your team will invariably find itself dealing with setbacks.
Setbacks come in many forms. Sometimes it’s a matter of missing performance targets, such as expecting to clear a certain number of story points in a sprint and missing it. Maybe it’s a product release wrought with bugs or one that is a total flop with the users.
These things can be tough to deal with, but even worse if you aren’t expecting them and aren’t prepared to lead your team through them and back on track.
Dealing with setbacks as a team actually begins long before any setbacks occur. At the onset of any project, work week, release day or other important cycle, it’s your job as the leader of the team to recognize how you want it to go, set targets and motivate -- but also to understand how it could go wrong.
You need to understand what could go wrong in order to set expectations for your team. At the same time, it’s important not to give your team a free pass and to continue to optimistically push them to achieve the team’s goals.
The constant message should be around the culture of learning and continuous improvement. No one should hit their targets 100% of the time, otherwise those targets are too low and not challenging your team to reach their best potential. So when a target is missed, the expectation should always be that you will reflect with them on why and take actions to learn and avoid the same mistakes in the future.
In this way, you’re reframing “failure” as a “growth opportunity,” an important lesson for your team so that potentially frustrating or disheartening results don’t compound and become even more destructive.
When the setback does occur, it must be faced with transparency. This goes hand-in-hand with your reframing of failure as an opportunity: if you aren’t honest about how and why a setback occurred, there’s no opportunity for growth and it will just leave everyone feeling in the dark and generally bad about failing without any understanding of the reason or consequences.
The second reason transparency is so important is that failure should have an effect on the company and mission. While it might be a bitter pill to swallow, seeing how one’s work affects the larger mission can be eye-opening to just how important that individual and team are to the company.
In the short term, it can be tough to see that the setback had some real consequences, but it also helps connect your team in a real way to the greater mission, which will serve as motivation to learn and avoid the same mistakes in the future.
Let’s say your team has had a setback, you’ve been transparent about what happened and how it affects the broader company, and discussed why what can be done differently to avoid the same setback in the future. Now it’s time to review your team’s goals and ask what needs to be adjusted.
Do the goals need to be adjusted at all? For repeated targets, like story points per sprint, your goal should be hit about 75-80% of the time. This is difficult enough that people will push while not being so difficult that it’s impossible. If you see that you’re consistently missing this goal, it might be time to adjust the goal itself.
Even if everything has been done right, there may be some latent frustration. Some people are comfortable expressing this in a retrospective, and others are not. Sometimes these are concrete frustrations, and sometimes they are more of an emotional buildup.
It’s important for a leader to remember that the team is made of individuals with unique thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Know your audience and make sure you are having regular 1:1s with everyone (this should be happening all the time, not just when things go wrong. But when things do go wrong).
Sometimes it’s helpful to de-formalize this 1:1 time if you’re currently dealing with a setback. Go get lunch or a coffee with your team member or go for a walk outside. Give them space to express how they’re feeling and vent if they need to, and then bring them back on track and focused on the new goals and their contributions to the company’s mission.
You’ve talked it out, have a new plan, and maybe a few new goals. It’s time to refocus and get moving. The best way to get over a setback is to charge forward and get a win. If anyone on the team didn’t believe it before, they have now seen that what they do has a real impact.
So refocus on the bigger picture, why the goals are what they are, and how they will achieve those goals. Help your team visualize the next important step in order to move on from the trials of the past and ultimately accomplish something great.
Setbacks are a natural part of any competitive, leading-edge software. If you aren’t failing sometimes, you aren’t pushing yourself or challenging the status quo enough. Learn to frame setbacks as opportunities for growth and keep looking ahead. Review your targets, make the changes you need, and refocus on the mission so that everyone can wake up ready to get back to it!
Hungry for more? Check out The Most Common Mistakes New Engineering Managers Make.