Exceptions don’t prove the rule

How to handle exceptions gracefully



Article Author Sarah Willcox

Sarah Willcox is the Founder of Fairisle Consulting

How often has this happened to you? You’re in a meeting that’s trying to get started on something new – a new marketing campaign or product launch maybe. But there’s always somebody there saying ‘yes but what if this happens’ or ‘that’s all very well but we always have a problem with…’. In other words, rather than focusing on the overall benefits of an initiative, they seem to constantly pick holes. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems to happen a lot.


This kind of focus on the exceptions to a rule can be frustrating. It can start to feel a bit personal, especially if you’re the one championing the idea. And it can really slow things down, which causes frustration.

So what do you do in this scenario? It can be tempting to just barge ahead, dismissing exceptions as they come up. Or you can let yourself get bogged down in the details, dealing with each exception as it comes up. Either way, you may be mistaking exceptions for objections. And there is an important difference. An exception is a way of saying ‘there’s more to consider here’. An objection is saying ‘this is wrong’. It’s very easy to get them mixed up, especially if exceptions are pointed out in an aggressive or truculent manner.

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Story mapping

But there is a way to acknowledge and recognise exceptions, without losing sight of the bigger picture. This process is known as story mapping and it essentially involves ‘putting things in their right place’.

In brief, you map out each step in a process and where there is an exception to that step, you simply write it down and place it underneath the main step. You don’t need to worry about exactly how you’re going to deal with the exception, you just note it down. It starts to look a bit like this:

Story map example

You can use post-its or scraps of paper, and there are also specially-designed software tools that you can use.

Tell the whole story

The point is, by using story mapping, you can tell the whole story, with the good bits (the ‘happy path’), as well as the difficult bits (the ‘unhappy path’).

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The next step is to really look at the unhappy paths. Are they really exceptions? How often do they happen? How many people or processes do they impact? By doing this you can start to work out how to resolve them.


This has two advantages. It recognises the importance of exceptions (in some cases not acknowledging an exception can derail the initiative). And It also has the effect of bringing those team members who are focussed on exceptions on board. That’s because they will feel recognised and appreciated – that their contribution is valued.

The unhappy path

If this all sounds a bit theoretical, think about the last time you had an issue with your bank account or phone contract. Anything in fact where you needed to call the contact centre. Were you passed from person to person, having to explain the same problem repeatedly, with long pauses on hold? Well, that’s because you’ve become an exception and found yourself on the unhappy path. The scenario no one built into the process. Maybe your case wasn’t accommodated because no-one listened to the person raising the exceptions when the process was designed.

Image of two similar but differently coloured hats illustrating the Fairisle article How to disagree brilliantly


How to disagree brilliantly


Exceptions are valuable. Sometimes they are hard to deal with. But listening to, and acknowledging them in a constructive way like story mapping is much more effective than ignoring them. Or allowing them to dominate the conversation.

This was really just a glimpse into story mapping which is a whole method in itself. If you want to learn more about it, we highly recommend Jeff Patton’s books and blogs.

We have found listening to exceptions – and objections – to be very useful in our work.  Many of the tools and approaches we use come from the same place as Story Mapping. Talk to us to find out more.

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