I heard a phrase in the Army once that I have oft repeated

He can’t even screw up right

But as trite and humorous as it is, there is a little wisdom behind that, as is often the case in military phrases, acronyms and jokes. Is there an incorrect way to screw up? If so, conversely, is there a correct way to screw up? It is an intriguing question and the answer is “yes” to both.

Screwing down

aka screwing-up wrong

Most people don’t “screw up”, they actually “screw down”. This means they make a mistake but rather than learning from it they …

  • Make excuses or otherwise equivocate
  • Blame others
  • Attribute it to bad luck, external events or other unavoidable circumstances

In rare cases where they do accept responsibility, it is short-lived as they try to forget about the situation soon after it happens thus mitigating any ability to learn from, let alone benefit from the mistake.

By externalizing blame they miss an opportunity to understand the root-causes of the mistake, for example was it lack of attention to detail, insufficient effort, not following instructions etc. And by not analyzing the root causes, they will have no ability to correct/address them and prevent similar mistakes from happening in the process.

Also, externalizing blame prevents you from hearing, let alone internalizing feedback on the problem, which is meant to help you by correcting the behaviors or addressing the core issues that lead to the problem. Even worse, it can lead to resistance, resentment and even anger about getting feedback, no matter how constructive. If you truly don’t believe you have done anything wrong, any suggestion to the contrary can lead to such reactions.

If you match this profile, most likely you are screwing down. And the biggest problem with screwing down is that you are locked in a cycle of mistake > excuse that will endlessly repeat, until you start taking responsibility for your own actions and the consequences of those actions. I’ve known people who’ve lived their whole lives and never arrived at that level of understanding. It isn’t their fault. It is always “The man” who is out to get them. You know the type.

Worked example

You completed the sprint but, as the scrum master, you failed to send in the sprint retrospective for 3 full business days and only did, after you got a reminder.

As the product owner is reviewing the procedures for completing a sprint and detailing her expectations, in terms of deliverables, you fidget in your seat and all you can think about is what you are going to say next. You actually don’t hear a word she says let alone internalize the feedback.

You take advantage of a brief pause in the constructive criticism to interject and blurt out that it was only 3 days, not a full week (as if that has any relevance or meaning) and that you know another team turned one in even later (even though this is probably not even true). You turn it around by asking why you are being singled out, and in your mind, invent reasons why she has it out for you.

The product owner is able to complete the feedback session, despite the interruptions, and lays out expectations that you will adhere to requirements for sprint reporting from now on. When she asks for confirmation that you understand, ostensibly hoping you will even volunteer some contrition or even actions to correct the problems, you reply with “Well, nobody is perfect”.

Screwing up

aka screwing-up right

Mistakes happen. Yes, you will screw up. But it isn’t the end of the world, and in fact, learning from your mistakes is the fastest way to improve. And the more mistakes you make, if, indeed, you learn from them, the faster you will improve.

ARR

Screwing up “right” involves a 3 letter acronym ARR

This stands for …

Acknowledge the mistake, the feedback, the reality of the situation. By acknowledging feedback, this may simply be to sit there and listen, with an open mind, even if the topic and the delivery of the feedback isn’t positive.

Take Responsibility for the problem. Own it. Even if there we extenuating circumstances, even if it wasn’t all your fault, even if you don’t think it is totally fair – take responsibility.

Commit to Resolve the problem by changing your actions and behaviors to ensure that the situation won’t happen again, or at least not as badly

Worked example

A good example is some trouble I caused in high school. I was confronted by the teacher who had caught me red handed and threatened me with repercussions, if it continued

Acknowledge – I quietly listened to everything he said. I didn’t look down, roll my eyes, shake my head, cross my arms or otherwise try to invalidate what he was saying with my body language. Nor did I interrupt, try to interject.

Take responsibility – Internally, I took full responsibility. I didn’t equivocate (“Oh, it wasn’t so bad”, “Others were involved”). I didn’t make excuses (“Well, some friends were the ones who forced me to do it”). I knew I had done wrong and that even though others were involved, I was taking 100% of the responsibility for my actions

Commit to resolve – I committed to resolve the problem by saying “It won’t happen again. I guarantee it”. I didn’t say I would “try” to avoid trouble or that I “hoped” it wouldn’t happen again. I was in control of my actions and I was in control of the resolution. Committing means essentially making a guarantee that if you can’t control the results or the outcome, you can at least control the inputs, your behavior and actions. The things you do and the things you don’t do

ARR cheat sheet

To summarize the above, you can distill it down to some simple phrases

Acknowledge – I hear you. I get it

Take responsibility – I own this. It’s on me.

Commit to resolve – It won’t happen again. I’ll take concrete steps to avoid this in the future. I’ll make sure this isn’t repeated

Examples:

“I hear you. I own this. It won’t happen again”

“I get it. It’s on me. I’ll take concrete steps to avoid this in the future”

You can add:

“I would like to check back in a few weeks to make sure my corrective measures are sound, working etc.” 

“I really appreciate you taking the time to help me improve”

Saying “Sorry”

Where is the part where you apologize? It was left out on purpose. Apologies are words. They are meaningless. Worse, people feel that just by saying “Sorry” it is a proverbial get-out-of-jail-free card. And if the just throw out the word sorry, they can quickly get back to doing the same exact things that caused the problems in the first place, without consequences.

Only specific actions and a commitment to resolve the problem matters, along with hopefully the resulting improvement and lack of repeating the same mistake. Words like “Sorry” are useless, and can be even less than useless if they are meant to replace actual corrective steps

I always told people that unless they ran over my dog, they would never have to say “Sorry” in my company.

Summary

So the next time someone tells you “screwed up”, be grateful for the opportunity to learn and improve. Screw up once and it is a teaching point. Screw up a few times, and you will begin to learn, assuming you profit from those mistakes and don’t repeat them. Screw up enough, and who knows you might even achieve success!