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Making lemonade

 A week or so after I started as the new dev manager for an existing group, the person who was clearly my most knowledgeable and respected lead informed me that he was leaving Microsoft to move back home. A few days earlier, I had seen this person resolve a crisis that no one else expected or could fathom. Now, he was leaving the group, the company, and the state.

As panic set in, I asked my indispensable lead what I could do to convince him to stay. He told me that he’d already accepted a job and signed an offer on a new home. It was devastating—my new group was losing its heart before I even had the chance to learn everyone’s name. It wasn’t personal; my lead had been planning this for months. Bad things happen, luck changes, and life is full of surprises. What matters is not your good or bad fortune, but how you respond.

I could have responded to my lead by asking him to delay his move. I could have encouraged him to work remotely. I could have lost self-control, gotten quite upset, and begged him to stay. Instead, I applied a technique from top companies in the service industry. I sincerely congratulated my lead on his new role, told him how much he was appreciated, and arranged a party to wish him well in his new pursuits. I flipped the script and made lemonade from lemons.

What’s the meaning of this?

How is providing sincere congratulations and a going-away party the equivalent of making lemonade from the lemons my lead handed me? Well, my lead’s decision to move was clearly well-considered and fully committed. Fighting it would be problematic. Yet, my group was well aware of the impact of my lead’s departure. They were paying close attention to how I responded. Regardless of what I did, I’d be making a big impression.

Instead of panicking, I showed confidence, warmth, and caring for my people. At the party, without any prompting, my departing lead told my group that he was sorry to go, that I was a good guy, and that he regretted not having the chance to work for me. That’s the lemonade.

Flipping a bad situation into a positive experience is a practice I stole from the best service establishments. When your bartender spills your drink at the finest resorts, he may buy a free round for everyone at the bar. When your fine hotel overbooks, leaving you without a room, your hotel manager may give you a penthouse suite. The idea is to take what should be a rare bad experience and transform it into a memorable positive story (flipping the script).

Since you can’t afford to give everyone free drinks, penthouse suites, and going-away parties every day, it’s important to flip the script only for rare bad events that can’t be easily changed. Spilled drinks by bartenders are uncommon and can’t be un-spilled. Having no rooms available for a reservation is uncommon, and you can’t kick out other people. Having a lead leave Microsoft is uncommon, and this one had already put an offer on a house.

Very impressive

Why does flipping the script leave such a positive memorable impression? Because it combines the powerful techniques of framing and jackpots.

Framing is providing context that puts your desired outcome in a positive light. For example, when a car dealer sells you a sound system for your car, she always frames it relative to the price of the car, which makes it seem inexpensive even though it’s probably overpriced. Framing in sales can be deceptive, but framing in problem solving can clarify choices. That’s why you should always frame a costly solution by first describing the costlier problem. As for flipping the script, the bad situation is naturally experienced first, which makes the positive outcome seem that much better.

Jackpots make a huge impression on people. They are used by casinos and governments to raise millions of dollars, but they can also be used to create lasting positive impressions. Because flipping the script is relegated to rare events, the positive outcome appears like a jackpot, making it wonderfully memorable.

Flipping the script combines great framing and a jackpot. The result is a story remarkable enough for people to share with friends and family. You’ve turned a bad situation into a powerful positive message. It must be rare and sincere to work—you can’t force it. But when the opportunity presents itself, flipping the script is gold.

Tell me a story

Here’s one more example. A person recently left my group, and I needed to find a replacement. One of my teams had an extra person who was capable of doing the job, so I asked that person if he’d consider switching roles. He thought about it and decided to stay put. I was clearly disappointed—this meant recruiting someone new as well as dealing with the team that had an extra member.

When I asked the person if he was sure that he didn’t want to switch roles, he assured me that he had made up his mind. It made him uncomfortable to tell me no and see me disappointed. I could have insisted on the change. I could have applied more pressure, perhaps even hinting that his review would be impacted. Instead, I flipped the script.

I thanked the person sincerely. I told him that saying “no” to your boss is difficult—it takes integrity and self-confidence. I told him that integrity and self-confidence are attributes I truly value and that our team needs to trust that every member will do what’s right and have the courage to speak up, even when the news isn’t good. I told him that I now knew I could count on him.

This was a powerful moment for both of us. I’ve since hired someone new and dealt with the extra person, but more importantly, I’ve sent a strong message about the values our team holds dear and re-recruited a great employee.

Turnaround is fair play

Occasionally, bad things happen that you can’t control. However, you can control how you respond. Most of the time, you adjust the plan, fix the bug, or correct the misunderstanding. But there are times when what’s wrong can’t be repaired.

In the rare cases where what’s amiss can’t be changed, consider how you’d flip the script. Don’t just accept the problem—take the opportunity to turn it around completely. If you’ve disappointed someone, use that moment to show them how much they are truly valued. If someone has disappointed you, remind them of what really matters in your relationship.

An old group of mine once had to cancel a big project. It was deeply disheartening, so we threw a “sink-it” party complete with dunk tank. In my twenty years at Microsoft, I’ve covered more than one “ship-it” award with product stickers, but my favorite sticker is the “sink-it” I pasted on the back. Lemons may be tart, but lemonade sure tastes sweet.

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