Behavioural science tells us that people make more than 35,000 decisions a day, most small and insignificant, but plenty that are potentially important and impactful. And with a third or more of those decisions occurring during work hours, that’s a lot of scope for things to go awry.

It’s no surprise then that people make mistakes. And businesses are no different. When there are so many decisions being made, by so many individuals, teams, functions and boardrooms, it’s understandable that organisations are going to get things wrong – and sometimes with headline-making effect.

Avoiding an own goal

The recent European Super League debacle, for example, provides a perfect warning of the dangers of making sweeping organisational changes while excluding your employees and customers from the process. And it’s not just the club owners of the failed ESL bid that have learned that lesson the hard way, both financially and reputationally.

In October 2020, Amazon had to climb down from a proposed ban of its employees using TikTok on their phones, after a predictable outcry. While at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, J.D.Wetherspoon caved to public pressure and reversed its decision not to pay staff through the first lockdown.

In 2018, fashion house Burberry earned its own social media furore after revealing it had burned nearly £30m of unsold stock in order to ‘protect its brand’. The reaction to this evident wastefulness and environmental disregard forced Burberry to issue a statement that it had stopped the practice.

Keeping it real

Further back, in 2001, Royal Mail announced its catastrophic rebrand to Consignia, at the cost of £1.5m. The change was widely derided, prompting a rapid return to the original name and brand, at the cost of another £1m. While a few years earlier, British Airways had launched its own ill-fated bit of rebranding when it, perhaps laudably, replaced the tail insignia across its fleet with a selection of world art. Colourful and inclusive as it was, customer and press opinion was against it, and within a couple of years the branding began to revert to a more traditional take on the Union Flag.

And way back in 1985, Coca-Cola courted controversy when it replaced the classic Coke brand and taste with ‘New Coke’. Even in an age long before social media, the scale of negative news coverage and fan feedback forced a return of the ‘real thing’ to store shelves.

These are just a few of the more infamous and newsworthy examples of organisation’s making unforced errors, and all of them seem inevitable in hindsight, and especially so for those in our connected age. Furthermore, they all appear to stem from organisations failing to fully engage their employers and/or customers in important strategic and brand choices that could directly impact them. As has been clearly demonstrated, again and again, doing so can quickly turn allies and brand advocates into adversaries.

Taking stakeholders with you

Naturally, engaging your audiences, testing comprehensively and crowdsourcing a full spectrum of opinions are integral to making the right decision in the first place, and there are no doubt lessons on how that could have been done better in all of these examples. But of equal importance is making it right when it’s clear you’ve got it wrong.

  • Start by owning it. Put your hands up and humbly accept that you were at fault. To err is human, after all. Your stakeholders will expect, and respect, your honesty, and it’s essential to begin winning back the trust that’s been lost.
  • Go to plan B. Assess your best way forward. This might be a pivot – where a new direction is available and amenable – or it could require a complete backtrack. And that’s okay too. Better to get back to your prior position than to keep on digging in the wrong direction.
  • Listen and learn. The current situation potentially stemmed from a misunderstanding of the wants and needs of your stakeholders, or the likely strength of their reaction. Take that lesson onboard, and engage them in finding a way forward that meets their needs and works for your brand and strategy. This will go a long way to rebuilding the reputational damage caused by the original decision.

Of course, the smartest approach, and especially so during these turbulent times, is to take everybody with you from the outset.

If you want to talk about the best ways to engage your employees, your customers and stakeholders on your organisational journey, please get in touch.

Ian.Barrow@corporateculture.co.uk