Bump or Brick Wall: How to Determine Plan B

We all have failures and setbacks, but they can be our best opportunities to learn when we pause before we decide what to do next. Next time you fail miserably, ask yourself: Is it a bump or a brick wall?

Advice like “Be persistent and keep going!” may miss the important step of adapting to new information and circumstances. Likewise, a setback isn’t a reason to say, “It won’t work. I’m done.”

To help determine whether you’ve hit a real brick wall or just a really nice bump, stay open-minded about why you hit a roadblock. Gather information and see where it leads you. Learn from your obstacle first and do some simple analysis before you decide your next step, much less give up.

In my research for Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, I found people who start changes—“Wave Makers”—are keenly able to size up an obstacle, adjust, and work through it. They focus on the impact and outcome they want rather than personal recognition. This mindset makes a setback a chance to learn and move forward rather than a debilitating hit to the ego or a rejection.

Cynthia Young, who changed the culture at her prior organization, says understanding the difference between tactics and strategy is key. “You have to be willing to make room for the possibility that you missed something,” she says. “It doesn’t mean your overall plan or what you’re trying to accomplish is wrong. It just means that you might have to change tactics, not strategy. Not everything is going to have your ideal neat, happy ending.”

Diagnose Disappointment

Before you decide your next step, pause and diagnose the situation. Set your emotions aside.

Ask yourself some key questions:

1. What was the original goal? Remember your original intent and what made you get started.

2. What were the actual results? Set aside your feelings and focus on actual outcomes.

3. What progress was made, even if you didn’t realize your ultimate goal? Think only about progress—not where you came up short.

4. What didn’t work as you had hoped or planned, and why? Be specific—your budget was too small, your sponsor moved to a new role, you didn’t have enough information about your customer needs.

Now, with these answers you can draw conclusions based on facts and outcomes.

Charley Johnson, president of the Pay it Forward Foundation, highlights persistence in spite of a setback: “The difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t is that the successful just won’t give up. When times got tough and everyone else would’ve given up, that is when they step up. And I’ve challenged myself: Do I honestly believe this is going to work? I’m just going to give up. And that’s when I realize, no, this is exactly what I’ve always wanted.”

Persistence is a prized virtue of those who start changes. Yet persistence doesn’t mean you plow ahead with your blinders on when your plan clearly isn’t going to work. Regroup and find another path that will. Amazing ideas can look very different in the rearview mirror. Accept that possibility.

Plan B Time

Plan B isn’t failure. It’s simply a revised approach. In my experience, we often look back at Plan B and realize it was the better way all along, even if we didn’t see it at first. When you are ready for Plan B, you essentially have four options:

1. Change your idea

2. Change your plan

3. Change you

4. Pause

Entrepreneur, SUCCESS contributing editor and New York Times No. 1 best-selling author Tory Johnson says at this point in your “failure,” you have to look in the mirror.

“Too frequently a situation looks like this: You’re repeatedly contacting the same five people who’ve expressed lukewarm interest,” Johnson says. “You’re calling, texting, e-mailing, sending smoke signals—and in return you’re getting absolute silence. The obvious conclusion that most people falsely make: NOBODY is interested. It’s very easy to blame them—and to get angry at their refusal to respond—but that serves no constructive purpose and certainly won’t generate business for you.”

Don’t expect a parade for your new idea. It won’t work that way. There will be setbacks.

Wave Maker Trisha Murphy Rae, co-founder of Christmas is for Children, explained that she viewed setbacks as part of doing something important. “I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy of ‘Some will. Some won’t. So what. Next,’ and you just move on.”

Learn from your setback and determine if you have hit a bump or a brick wall. Either way, adjust and move forward.

Excerpts from Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life appear with permission from author Patti Johnson.


Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.

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