How do you cope when a contract goes wrong?

Ever had one of those weeks when a contract goes wrong?  Your confidence has taken a punch, you feel like walking away; throwing blame; feel like you’ve let yourself or your client down; you have thoughts of even starting a job search for an employed role that doesn’t hold the same level of responsibility; and just generally feel like running away from the pressures that come with contracts and freelancing?  Sound familiar?  Well, you are not alone!

I am sure that most freelancers have experienced a contract that hasn’t gone to plan.   It may be that despite your best intentions, planning and hard work, the outputs and outcomes of the contract weren’t achieved, or that it’s ‘just’ been one of those contracts with a catalogue of obstacles and difficulties.  

So, what went wrong and how are you supposed to deal with it when it happens?

Sometimes despite your best planning events happen which are completely out of your hands.  You feel that your proposal and contract were clear; planned thoroughly; you assessed the risks and planned for different approaches; you set aside enough time and resources to deliver; your communication plan with the client was robust; and you had the skills to undertake the work.  Or did you?

You might feel battered and bruised by the experience but it is really important to learn from this.  To coin Kelly Clarkson ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and so as hard it is, it’s so important to take a critical objective eye over what went wrong.


Review what went wrong and what you can take from this.  This isn’t about apportioning blame on others but thinking about what you can learn from what was in your control.  Considerations should include thinking through –

  • Were your proposal and contract clear and fit for purpose?
  • Did you plan the work thoroughly?
  • Was there a clear assessment/consideration of the risks and were these appropriately mitigated against?
  • Did you keep communication channels open and transparent?
  • Did you allocate the right amount of time and resource to deliver the work?
  • How could your work output have been improved?

These are just some prompts but there is so much value in forensically (as painful as it might be) reviewing what went wrong and what learning you can take from this.

Accept responsibility

Once you have pinpointed what went wrong, your part to play in that, and the learning that you can take from this, then accept some responsibility for this!  It’s very easy to pass mistakes off as being down to not having a great client (and there may be elements that are) but I would be surprised if there isn’t still learning and responsibility that you can take from this – even if it is that you should have been clearer or communicated better with the client.

Accepting responsibility can also extend to sharing that learning with the client.  Any client will be far more receptive to you if you don’t just state what went wrong but also share your reflections with them. We are only human and mistakes happen and by taking some responsibility from those mistakes and suggesting how this could be remedied in the future will show you have taken the situation seriously and have provided a solution for the future.

Seek support and move on

We all need someone to talk to, especially another freelancer who will understand your situation and can provide support.  Reach out; use the freelancer networks! There will always be someone willing to provide that needed buddy support.  So many times, we (Kate and Nicola) have provided a sympathetic ear for each other and provided the needed support to remember that it was a one-off event and that you still have the skills and capabilities to continue to deliver your freelance career.

Boy, does your confidence take a kicking though when things go wrong.  Pulling yourself up from this knockback and reinstating some belief in yourself and your work will definitely take some effort.  That’s where drawing upon support comes in and remembering what you have and can achieve.  Nobody is perfect and we will all make mistakes, accept them and move to a positive mindset of seeing the experience as learning.  Mistakes and obstacles have been faced but you will be more resilient and stronger going forward.

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