Back in university, shortly after graduating, I worked for a summer as an orientations coordinator. Orientations, for a lot of universities, is huge and is basically planning out everything that happens on the first day for first years, mature students, international students and more.

I decided to apply and was grateful that I was accepted, on the basis of my technical knowledge. There were three separate Orientations Coordinator positions, and one of them was more technical than others and involved sorting students into groups (cohorts), mail merging and then mailing out invitations to them letting them know what cohort they were with and who their student squad leader was, among other details.

That position landed on my plate. I was a bit worried about the technical part of sorting the students into groups, but found out that a small program had been developed that would do all the sorting needed for me. What was handy though was being able to look at the code and to see what it was doing, then to tweak it as needed.

Once the sorting was completed, I exported the students and their information into spreadsheets where I would manipulate it further. Some students may drop out. Some students may be added as spots opened up in enrolment. Depending on these additions and drops, I would adjust the groups, manually in the Excel spreadsheets, and try to group them as well as I could depending on their age, gender and field of study.

One day, while I was working with the Excel spreadsheet, I was doing a sort on a column as part of a way to organize the information. For those of you that use Excel, you know that a warning pops up whenever you sort one column when your spreadsheet has multiple columns of information. The warning says: do you want to continue with your current selection or expand your selection to include the other columns. If you continue, you only sort the column that you have selected. In most cases, you should select the expansion because you don’t want to mix the information in one column with the others.

For some reason, on that day, I decided to continue with my current selection. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that caused a whole mess of issues down the road. By the time we mail merged and then mailed out invitations, concerned parents and students called in to ask why the name on the mail merge was a different student and whether or not their cohort was the one on the letter. I felt incredibly stupid for making the mistake and spent a lot of time examining my work processes and why I made that mistake.

Here is what I learned:

Pause for a few seconds before taking action

My work style when I first started was, funny enough, like the agile methodology. Sprint, work hard to getting something out to the ‘customer’ (which was often my boss), and then iterate based on the feedback. In this case, I was rushing through trying to get the work done as quickly as I could, but I wasn’t stopping to think about what would happen when the warning on the Excel spreadsheet came up.

One of my managers gave me this advice, which at the time, did not make much sense to me. He told me to ‘slow down to speed up’. I think what he was essentially saying was that if you slow down to think and prepare, you are going to be able to execute a lot faster than if you jumped in right away.

While it may be time consuming to do this before every action you take at work, make it a habit to ask yourself what will happen if you continue with a certain action. OR make it safe for subordinates or team mates to question what you are doing.

Spot check your work

Every so often, as you complete a step or a phase in your work, take the time to check your work to make sure it makes sense. Just like saving your work every once in a while, checking your work means that you are not spending all of your time doing something, just to realize at the very end that you have to re-do it.

Some work requires that you only do spot checks (a small sample out of the whole population) while others require you to do full checks. In the latter case, doing a small batch is easier and better than trying to do the whole check.

Get another set of eyes on your work

Have you ever worked so much that when you took a look at it after, with a fresh set of eyes, you realize that you had made obvious mistakes that you somehow missed?

This is the value of having a fresh set of eyes on your work – and if it can’t be your eyes, have a coworker or friend take a quick look and provide a ‘sanity’ check before continuing with your work.

Another tip that I found interesting: if you are trying to check your spelling and grammar on your own work, either have it read out loud by a bot OR change the font type. Having it read out loud makes spelling mistakes and grammatical mistakes a bit more obvious. Changing the font type can help you see things with a ‘fresh’ perspective.

Take responsibility for your mistake and find a solution

As parents started calling in greater and greater frequency, I realized that something had gone wrong with my spreadsheet. I took a look and only then realized that when I had sorted one column, I had not expanded the selection and it mixed up one column of information with all the other columns. At that point, I was scared, but I knew that the right thing to do was to own up to the mistake so that I could get help on what to do next to resolve the situation.

I called a meeting with my boss, and very calmly explained to her that I had made a mistake with the spreadsheet and that the mail merge had happened with the mistake. Therefore, there would be a greater number of calls coming in from parents and students who were confused about their invitation letters to orientation.

Later, I realized that my calm approach helped to really calm my boss, who tended to be very energetic and wear her emotions on her sleeve. Owning up to the mistake was one of the hardest things I had to do, but we were all professionals and so we calmly made a plan to mitigate the issue. The plan was to patiently take all the calls and to explain to the parents that there was a mistake in the letter and that all the other pieces of information were fine (the student’s name was the only thing that was mixed up). Then, on any future mail merges, I would get a second pair of eyes to do spot checks on the student’s information to make sure that the sorting worked and had not mixed up the columns again.

In short, learn from the mistake I made at work and adopt these practices at work:

  • Pause before taking action
  • Spot check your work
  • Examine your work with a fresh perspective (either you or a coworker)
  • Take responsibility for your work and find a solution