There is a common misconception that in Chinese, the sign for crisis is the same as for opportunity.
If not through these symbols, how can we create opportunities from our crises?
Well, we can learn more about our resources and resilience. And we can learn more from those than we can learn from our mistakes and failures.
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.
The story of a crisis
Hans was the General Manager of a power supply company in Austria, and he described the crisis they had faced when a confusing letter was sent to all their customers, which many interpreted to mean they would be cut off from their supply. The letter prompted thousands of calls and complaints from customers, overwhelming the switchboards and customer care department.
Somehow they got through the immediate problems and two weeks later Hans convened the meeting of his managers to discuss what had happened.
The managers were expecting 'to discuss the reasons for this incredible disaster'. In such a meeting, managers would explore how the letter got out there – perhaps identifying who wrote it, where they had gathered their misinformation, who had authorised it and who failed to prevent it.
Then they would explore the weaknesses of the switchboard and other response mechanisms. There would probably be several people to blame, departments accusing each other of various failings – and perhaps eventually measures proposed to stop such a letter ever being issued again.
All of the topics are focused on the problem, and are based on largely unexamined assumptions about the value of Problem Talk. For example, given a good look at a problem, we can probably reach a position in which to say, “I learned my lesson – I won't do that again.”
There is unarguably merit in problem-solving, when it is successful. And therefore there is merit in Problem Talk, if it's the sort that leads to solved problems, or if it leads to understanding (if that's what you want) or to have 'got something off your chest’ (if that's what you want).
In fact, Problem Talk has had such a history of success, especially in analysis-driven professions such as medicine, engineering and all their derivatives, that it has become (for most people) an automatic way of talking and thinking about topics whenever something is not as satisfactory as it might be.
However, the learning from Problem Talk obscures the potentially greater learning from Success Talk. When things go well or you get something right, you have valuable learning in your grasp. There it is: precisely how that is done.
Reflect and repeat. And it’s a distraction to think that you have to get it wrong before you can get it right.
The value of success
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.
Unless you are surprisingly talented or lucky, 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 you would prove that to be the case by getting it right on each subsequent occasion.
Also, in attempting such tasks, even when you make a mistake along the way, most of those mistakes offer ‘Useless Learning’. If you hadn't made the mistake, you'd have been fine – and no less learn-ed.
To learn to do the task, you need to learn each bit of it, and making mistakes adds nothing to your knowledge of the accurate bits that comprise the entire task. More extremely, you don't need to crash a bike to ride one, break a leg to ski or have your business go bankrupt to be a successful entrepreneur.
If no one had made the mistake in the Austrian company, the company would have been just fine.
Remember Hans? Here’s what he did, having recently attended a training course in the Solutions Focus approach, he decided “very nervously” to put his new learnings into practice.
He went into the meeting, he said, and wrote these questions onto a chart: “What did we do right? What went well?” He told the assembled managers that they might find this strange, but he'd like them to consider this question first, then later if they wished they could explore the expected question of what went wrong.
Gradually the managers began to describe what had worked: the crisis had, after all, been dealt with. The customer relations team had responded politely to all the complaints; other managers had come to help as the volume of calls increased; they had swiftly issued a new letter to all the customers, explaining and apologising for the mistake; they had actually lost hardly any customers and were on track for their main commercial goal. And so the list went on.
Hans said that they never got to the discussion of what went wrong: by the time they had finished the discussion of what had worked, of what they had done well, they were ready to begin a new list: “What will we do better (the next time)?”
All the managers knew what actions they needed to take – not only to ensure that the problem would never arise again, but also to implement and sustain a range of other improvements to their system that would lead to more efficiency and improved customer service.
(There is a fuller account of this story in the book, Solutions Focus Working, Mark McKergow and Jenny Clarke)