What do you do when things look like they’re going against you? When you’re no longer likely to win that mandate, hit your sales targets, or successfully recruit that rising star? Or worse yet, when a loved one is in the hospital and things are going the wrong way?

They say that we show our true colors in adversity. Often, that’s when you discover what you’re made of, and also how badly you want a positive outcome.

When the prize really matters, here are five actions that have worked well for me.

These won’t guarantee success (frankly, no one can), but will get you as close as possible.

1. The most important question

When the chips are down, the most important question to ask is, “what more can we do?” I ask this of myself, and of my team. It’s important to tap into any and all sources of good ideas. And you never know when the most junior team member might have a great suggestion. Sometimes people deep in the trenches can see things you don’t from above.

I only discovered this was my “go to” question when competing for new business when a former team member told me she uses it now that she’s in charge, and she learned it from me!

In fact, this question is even better to ask before things get to crisis mode. That way, you’re more likely to head off adversity.

And the least useful question to ask at that moment is, “who’s fault is this?” That shuts people down and reduces their creativity just at the moment when every ounce of constructive thinking is required.

2. Get help from experts

In the vein of tapping into all sources of help and insight, the second action is to talk to experts. In the healthcare scenario, that’s getting a second opinion or, at a minimum, talking to people who know what questions to ask.

Back in the business world, it was talking to other colleagues who knew the client better than we did and also going up the line to get the input of senior people who had more experience in these beauty contests.

By the way, I found that if senior people were involved from early on, there was less likely to be a “witch hunt” after the fact because they were already in the frame, providing advice and feeling like part of the team. Some might say you get less credit for winning business if senior people are involved, but my experience is that it’s all in who those senior people are and how you deploy them.

More broadly, the moment you think you’re above everyone else in terms of knowledge and experience, you’re at risk of becoming arrogant or stunting your own growth. Underestimating others is the first step onto the slippery slope of excessive pride or hubris, which in Greek mythology leads to a downfall. And being the smartest person in the room means you’ll no longer be learning.

3. Be open to pivoting

This is a great term from Silicon Valley and the startup community. Pivoting means going in a different direction from the one you were taking. And like all things in startup land, you’re best to do this quickly and decisively.

When the chips are down, it could be the right thing to do to redouble your efforts in the direction you were already taking. But more often than not, you’re in this position because you’ve missed a turn or the usual things aren’t working for whatever reason. That’s when you need to be open to at least considering other options.

As you consult others outside your team, make sure to guard against the most dangerous mindset of all: the “not invented here” syndrome.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. A potentially great idea gets rejected primarily because someone else or some other company thought of it first, and your in-house experts can’t imagine being wrong.

4. Bias to action

Once you’ve generated a workable idea or two, what matters most is to take action. And that starts with having an inclination or bias toward taking action rather than waiting it out and sticking with the status quo (which at this point, is no longer working).

In tough situations, people often freeze whether it’s due to analysis paralysis, not wanting to be wrong, or wanting to avoid blame. Personally, I’ve found that at these moments, my acts of omission – the things I thought of but didn't do – are more likely to leave me with regret than acts of commission. If you also believe in living a life of no regrets, then doing that thing you thought of doing is usually better than doing nothing.

So if in doubt, take action.

5. Only stop at “nothing”

Finally, the key is to keep asking that first question, “what more can we do?” and to keep taking action until the answer is “nothing”. Then, when you’ve done everything you can, you can let the chips fall where they may.

This is about leaving no stone unturned. Having no regrets. Being able to say honestly that you’ve done everything you can as an individual, as a team, and as an organization.

When faced with adversity…

So when you’re faced with adversity, remember to:

  • Ask, “what more can we do?”
  • Tap into experts
  • Be open to pivoting, and
  • Keep taking action until there’s nothing more you can do.

Then, no matter what the outcome is, you can feel peaceful about it.

Which of these steps have helped you in the past, and which could help you going forward?

Leave a comment and let me know.