Many clients have difficulty in letting go of their problem. It’s not surprising. They have lived with the problem for a while; the problem is giving them trouble and it’s worthy of respect. Yet the solution-focused practitioner pops up to say the problem may have nothing to do with the solution – and remind them that it’s the solution that the client wants. That may make sense logically, but from the client’s perspective that can be tough to accept emotionally.
Pointing out people’s mistakes is supposed to be conducive to learning, and is a mainstay of traditional education systems.
Instead, we can treat the errors lightly or gently; as an opportunity to have another go, to find a more accurate way of getting the problem solved, the phrase translated, or the facts right.
The danger of these myths is that they encourage mistakes in the wrong contexts. And they blind us to the infinitely greater learning from getting things right. So let's learn to learn from success and getting things right.
1. Keep things in proportion, appropriate to the stakes. If the mistakes don’t much matter, then don’t give them excessive psychological weight. It’s a good idea to reduce needless perfectionism.
2. In a learning environment, treat mistakes lightly as a signal to have another go at succeeding or progressing. It's why we invest in simulators.
3. If you make mistakes in your organisation, it's worth saying sorry, as that builds trust and reduces excessive fear of making mistakes. It's most unfortunate, for example, that politicians cannot admit to making mistakes.
4. Value feedback - your own and other's useful stories. That sets you up to make use of feedback for fast adaptation. It’s a great improvisational and learning skill to notice how we are doing in relation to what we are aiming to do. Correct your course by spotting and quickly dealing with errors.
5. Learn from other people's mistakes - generally a list of tempting moves to avoid saves time and pain, and gets you more quickly to the ‘Success Stack’, so you can learn from what your mentor ultimately got right.
Mistakes are events you would rather have not happened (at least at the time), because the intention was to do something different, and the immediate consequence is most often unfavourable.
I like this story of a crisis handled by Hans Zeinhofer, who I met at a conference where delegates were discussing the application of solutions-focused ideas in organisations.
People keep telling me that we learn most from our mistakes. I think it’s a cliché and misleadingly wrong. The only good stuff I've seen from mistakes is an appreciation not to make that same mistake again, and sometimes a sense of personal resilience - though that occurs only if the mistake is followed by a subsequent success. All the rest of the 'good stuff' - if we mean learning and creativity - comes from success, from finding out what the thing to do actually is (as distinct from what it is not, the mistake).
Have you heard the Mistakes Myth? It’s in two parts. First this myth says we can't learn without mistakes; then it adds that we should embrace our mistakes. Well up to a point…
The first part is plain wrong – or, as one might call it, “a mistake”. It seems obvious that it is possible in theory at least that you can learn any process by following it correctly without mistakes. Whether it’s tying a shoelace, playing a sonata on the piano, or even assembling flat-pack shelving. You probably won't get it right first time, but you just might. And in order to do it a second time, you definitely need to do it a first time. If it did happen to go right first time, and your memory was functioning well, you could be said to have learned how to do it – and would prove that to be the case by getting it right on each subsequent occasion.