What to do when things go wrong

What To Do When Things Go Wrong

by Bernhard Bals

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

I was always thinking about writing a personal article in my blog. What stopped me from doing so? Finding a topic was the obstacle. What can I possibly write about myself that is interesting or useful to project managers, quality managers or systems engineers?

In the week I am writing this, there is a Friday the 13th. I am not superstitious at all. But during the last weeks things were happening that would perfectly fit to a stereotype Friday the 13th. So I feel pushed to write about what I do when things go wrong. I hope it will be useful for you.

What Happened?

I was planning to go on a trip to Beijing. To enter China I needed a visa. When the trip was confirmed on a Sunday, there was only roughly more than one week left. Since I had a quite busy schedule, I decided to involve an agency to obtain my visa. I put my application form, passport, photo, travel details into an envelope and mailed it to the agency in Berlin.

Two days later there was exactly one week left before the trip, when I learned that things go wrong. The agency called me with bad news. The envelope arrived, but it was broken and my passport was missing. What now?

What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Keep calm or calm down

When I received the call that my passport was lost, of course something happened inside me: a mix of surprise, worries, disappointment, fatalism, anger, helplessness arose. I was devastated.

I knew that none of those feelings was actually useful to solve the issue. So I took a deep breath and tried to get some distance between the feelings and my brain. For me, to keep calm when things go wrong, I do

  • close my eyes and take a deep breath (or a few more)
  • drink a cup of tea (herbal tea does best for me)
  • eat some milk chocolate (I try to avoid that)
  • ask myself the question: “will it kill me?” – if not, I trust there will be a way out

What does help you to calm down? Please let me know your strategies for keeping calm since I feel I could improve in that field.

Separate facts from fears

When things go wrong it helps me to identify the facts. So I separate facts that have actually happened and cannot be changed any more from fears about what could go wrong but can still be handled.

On that day, there was a movie in my head about not being able to go on my trip, having wasted the money on the non-refundable ticket, losing a business opportunity… – but hey, all of that has not yet happened. The only fact that could not be changed was: my passport did not arrive at the visa agency.

Think positive

Easy enough for me: I am an optimist. In my life there have been situations before that appeared to be hopeless. But in retrospective I have the impression that anytime things go wrong, in the end I always won (sometimes the gain was only experience – but hey, that is priceless). That helps to face this new challenge.

If you tend to be more pessimistic than me, don’t worry – many people I meet are. Here is one source for my optimism: a comedian from Munich, named Karl Valentin. He used to say:

“I am happy when it rains, because it would also be raining if I were not happy”

So doesn’t being pessimistic only make us feel worse but does not make anything better? If that does not yet convince you, here are some more tips for becoming an optimist.

For my passport issue, my optimism was supported by the strong belief that even if I cannot make this trip, there will be other opportunities. Like a weekend off. Like the opportunity to attend a space convention that appears to be in the same time period. Like planning the trip again in another time period. Even if it hurts a lot – all that would have been lost was money. Nobody got killed or injured.

Look ahead

Now having assessed the situation, it was time to do something to deal with the situation. As with all tasks, it starts with a clear objective. Which was in my case: I wanted to travel to Beijing  seven days later.

The remaining obstacle was: I did not have a passport with a visa. So my task was, to obtain a passport and a visa within seven days. Challenge accepted.


When things go wrong, they often add one more item to an existing long list of challenges. But due to the nature of interruptions, they take a prominent position. What was important and critical before, appears to be less important. But it isn’t. It can be dangerous to ignore important tasks due to an interruption.

For my task planning I use the Eisenhower method. Basically, it is a method that categorizes tasks regarding their urgency and importance. There are four categories:

  1. Urgent and important: These are the tasks I do by myself immediately.
  2. Not urgent but important: Since they are important, I will do these tasks by myself, but only if the tasks in category 1 are completed.
  3. Urgent but not important: Those tasks I delegate. If I cannot delegate them, I reconsider them and put them either into category 1 or 4
  4. Not urgent and not important: When I am really bored, I will do these tasks.

If you want to find out more about the Eisenhower method, there is a detailed article by Brett and Kate McKay.

I decided that this trip was important to me. Since I had only one week time left and no passport, the challenge was urgent. So I put it in category 1, which was luckily empty at that time.

Ask for advice and support

Finally I knew my task and that it is urgent and important enough to start it now. But what to do? When things go wrong, often we don’t see a way out. I have to admit, this happened to me, too. Passport gone, one week before my trip – and a visa to obtain. Sounds impossible. On the spot, I did not see any chance that I could still go on this trip. Why? Probably because I have never been in that situation.

So I decided to ask the visa agent for advice. And she gave me hope. I learned that it is possible to obtain a visa with a temporary passport. It just has to be at her office the next day. And she even offered me to organize the pick-up by a courier service. Awesome, the final part of the plan was already made.

The remaining task was to obtain a temporary passport within four hours. With some distance, I have to admit this sounds pretty impossible. But at that time – after I have passed all the phases above – I did not even think about failing any more. And I didn’t fail. Four hours later the courier service arrived at my house and I handed over the temporary passport.

Learn your lesson

All the steps above focus on getting back on track when things go wrong. This should be the first priority. After everything has been done to save the situation, it may be time to find out what went wrong. The main idea behind this step is finding out what can be done to avoid that the same thing will happen again.

  • Recall the fact: When I separated facts from fears I found out that the problem was that my passport did not arrive at the visa agency.
  • Identify causes: In my case, obviously the envelope was broken. This could have happened because it was too weak to sustain the rough handling, or because someone forcefully opened it. Personally I hope for the first reason, because then there is a good chance that my passport will be found and returned to me.
  • Define measures to prevent the causes to happen again: Definitely I will change two things when I send my passport again via mail: First I will use a stronger envelope and reinforce it with scotch tape. Second I will only send it with courier service. That will be more expensive, but is fully traceable.

Laugh about it

Since I have done what was possible and learned my lesson, there is no more need to punish myself by worrying. It wouldn’t change anything.

I gained a lot of experience which I can apply in future when things go wrong. So I rather tell the anecdote to you and hope you can laugh about it with me (hey, dont laugh about me).

Take care!

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