Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting to priceless

I'd like to start this post by owning up to a mistake. When John Caddell published his excellent book The Mistake Bank a few months back, I promised him I would post a comprehensive review here and on amazon.com. But my level of frustration at my own book being really and truly nearly done led me to put off keeping my promise. So this week I took myself in hand. I barred myself from working on my own book until I had finished and posted my review of John's book.

Having now done this, I can see that it was a mistake to put off doing the review. The promise nagged at me for months, and it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be (it's easy to review a great book), and I learned a lot by doing it. In fact, I think my own book will be improved by having read and reflected on John's book before I finished it.

Now, being a person who overdoes everything, I didn't want to post the usual brief "I know John and he's a good guy" review. I wanted to read the book in detail and comment on every part of it in a way that would help prospective buyers decide what the book had in it and whether it was for them. (That's one reason it took so long to get the review written!)

So here's my review. The indented parts won't go into my amazon.com review because nobody there will have any idea what I'm talking about.

Chapter One: Bouncing Back

This chapter is all about what you need to do to benefit from mistakes. I found all of the advice here sound, logical, and perfectly impossible to follow. I myself rarely own my mistakes (until much later), let everyone know there has been a problem ("quiet fixer" should probably be my middle name), or reflect on the problem (I'm better at sweeping things under rugs). I finished this chapter understanding mainly my own incompetence at learning from my mistakes. That's positive in itself, because I hadn't realized just how bad I was at it.

Chapter Two: How to Learn from Mistakes

Chapter two is about, guess what, everything I needed when I finished chapter one. It's about strategies to do what chapter one says you should do. The main thing I took away from this chapter was the value of time. I tend to have strong, fast, emotional reactions to mistakes, and to feedback on mistakes, especially from people who either know what buttons to push or blunder onto them. But if I can wait a little while, take a walk, have a meal, sleep on it, I feel differently. Everybody's heard of "count to ten" but I've never thought about it with regard to mistakes before. As I put myself into the shoes of the people in the stories in this chapter, I see how I could take more time to allow myself to learn, like they did.

Chapter Three: Where Mistakes Come From - Recognizing Patterns

Chapter three is about what to do about mistakes after you have calmed down enough to fully admit them to yourself. It's about recognizing patterns that cover multiple mistakes and doing something to fix them. Here the common problems of over-commitment and work pressure spoke to me. I always take on more than I can do, and I'm always twice as productive when I'm not trying to do twice as much work. These are the sorts of mistake engines that churn out one mistake after another, and that's true not only for myself but for a lot of people I know.

My favorite part of this chapter is where John recommends picking out one simple change that can make a long-term difference in the quantity and severity of mistakes. I like that idea: nothing overwhelming, nothing that creates more pressure, just one change, one tweak to the mistake engine that helps it run at a lower speed.
This chapter came to me serendipitously just after a ... discussion ... with my husband about my work practices. The problem is, when I do projects for people, they tend to be meeting corporate schedules, and they need everything done yesterday. So I don't feel like I have a lot of power to "push back" on the amount of time I need to get my work done. I typically tell people a catalysis report will take two weeks to produce, even though I know most projects only get done in that time because I work some 12 hour days, including weekend days, to meet the deadline. I always hope that won't happen, but it always happens. I know why it happens, too. The projects I do now are more ambitious than the projects I did ten years ago, and I haven't scaled my time estimations up enough to reflect that. The end result is a lot of stress for myself and my family.

Recently I was negotiating with an editor to layout and index my books, and she said matter-of-factly that it would take her one month to do the layout and one month to do the index. I didn't balk at that. I didn't try to pressure her. I just accepted her expert estimate of the time she would need to do a quality job. So why can't I do that? Why do I tell people I can do something in less time than I will almost certainly need? Because I'm afraid to lose the work, of course. I keep saying, "Maybe this project will take less time." But the fact is, every single project I've ever done has run over its appointed time in a new and unique way. There will never be a simple narrative project. There's no such thing. It would be better to lose some projects than to keep creating these stress bombs for myself and my family. That's "one simple thing" I can change. It's not an easy thing to change, but it could make a world of difference to the enjoyability and quality of my work.

Chapter Four: Creating the Culture

This chapter is all about dealing with mistakes in groups, communities and organizations. I found it a bit weaker than the chapters before it, but maybe that's because I've already read a lot about organizational culture. I don't think this book would be the right one to read if you only want to think about mistakes in groups; but that's not what it says it's about.

The part of the chapter that resonated with me most was the part about leadership. It seems to me that with mistakes, far more than with anything else, what happens up top trickles down. The boss who bites off heads when people make mistakes, or doesn't let people make mistakes in the first place, impacts the way everyone works. I've definitely seen a lot of that in my work.

Still, I would have liked to read about dealing with mistakes of interaction, such as mistakenly not letting people make their own mistakes. Recovering from interaction mistakes seems harder than recovering from mistakes related to schedules or processes. Some tips on that sort of mistake would be welcome. Okay, so maybe I've made a lot of that sort of mistake, but probably lots of other people have too.

Chapter Five: Mistakes as Opportunities

This chapter is about recognizing and making the most of new opportunities that come up as a result of mistakes. The opportunity I found most useful in these pages was the third one mentioned, "Make Smart Mistakes." Essentially, this is about taking risks in a careful way so that the mistakes you do make don't bankrupt you. This is a very hard thing to do! In some parts of this chapter I found myself feeling the same way I did in the first chapter, that it all sounds great in theory but in practice I often find myself "up against a wall" and out of options. This chapter is useful in that it reminds me that those walls may sometimes be imaginary or further off than they appear. That's worth thinking about.

The section of this chapter on "Deliberate Mistakes" is refreshing. Although I've certainly heard the term elsewhere, I liked how the chapter gave me ideas on how using deliberate mistakes can be kept useful and not damaging. I used to make a lot of deliberate mistakes when I was younger and had nothing to lose, but with parenthood comes responsibility, and the perceived ability to make deliberate mistakes goes down. I can see on reading this chapter some ways in which I could increase my ability to make deliberate mistakes without going back to the heedlessness of youth.
Another part of this chapter I liked was: Let Mistakes Take You to New Places. I wouldn't write this on amazon.com, but this blog and my books grew out of a mistake. When I started working at IBM, I entered into a career that relied heavily on frequent travel. I didn't think this was a limitation; I just did what came along and didn't think about the future. However, the moment my son was born I knew I would not want to travel for many years to come. What can a consultant do who rarely leaves home? Write books, of course. I can't say the "new place" my travel-requirement mistake took me to has been a great success - it certainly hasn't been monetarily - but I'm happy to have been able to write my books, which I couldn't have done if I had kept traveling.

Chapter Six: Time

This chapter is all about the influence of time on our processing of mistakes. What I found useful here was a sort of permission to take time after a mistake. I've always beat myself up about not getting over mistakes sooner. I should get some nerve and move on! Why dwell on things so much!

But what John is saying here is that there is a sort of process of grief in dealing with mistakes, and like all grief processes it has its rhythms. Real grief comes in waves, as anybody knows who has lost anybody. Some days you can handle it and some days it washes over you and drowns out everything else. Processing mistakes is like that too. Even what John said about it being normal and healthy to "oscillate" between reflecting on the mistake and stepping back from it seems parallel to the waves of grief, the troughs of which give you time to recover and renew your energy. I found it useful to learn that this oscillating process is normal and natural, just as I have learned the same thing about grief. Maybe I should have known all this, and maybe I did know it, but reading about it in this book has helped me to understand it better.
I'll give an example of a mistake that took the perspective of time to even notice, let alone fix. I woke up the other morning with the abrupt realization that chapters one and two in Working with Stories were stupidly, embarrassingly, reversed. The first chapter, which should have been all about the reader, was mostly about me explaining why I wrote the book and why I should be listened to, because I'm great and so on. It was only in the second chapter that I explained to the reader why the book might be useful to them. Later that day, I went right to work and fixed the problem. It took me years to recognize that mistake, but thanks to John I won't be beating myself up about it this time.


I'd like to go back to a sentence I wrote at the first part of this review: "I myself rarely own my mistakes (until much later), let everyone know there has been a problem ("quiet fixer" should probably be my middle name), or reflect on the problem (I'm better at sweeping things under rugs)."

I wrote that sentence just after I read the first chapter of The Mistake Bank, so it is really how I felt then. Having now read the entire book, I can now say that owning mistakes "much later" is perfectly okay, as long as it does happen; that letting everyone know there is a problem can be done quietly and carefully, and maybe it doesn't have to be "everyone" every time; and that reflecting on the problem can be done in stages and spurts, in between which one can rest. So my incompetences in learning from mistakes may be less disastrous than I thought and at the same time more amenable to improvement.

One of my favorite things about this book is its inclusion of something like fifty true stories from people who have made mistakes and learned from them. And these aren't little forgot-my-keys mistakes; they're the kind of mistakes that take years or decades to learn from. The stories both exemplified and authenticated the lessons in the text. The funny illustrations kept the book moving along well too.

The only thing I'd like to have that this book didn't give me is more depth (in a few areas I mentioned and also in general). I hope John has a sequel in mind, because I'd like to read more, especially in the way he's laid it out here.

In this review I picked out of The Mistake Bank the lessons I felt were most useful to me, but I haven't mentioned lots of other parts that didn't speak to me in particular but might speak to others.  This is a short book, but it provides plenty of food for thought. It's the kind of book you come back to and read over and over, because it will surely mean something new each time you read it.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Cynthia, for such a wise and thorough review. Your observation about Chapter
4 and wanting more depth is interesting, because I am working on some new stuff and Chapter 4 is the focal point. It's easier for me to think
about mistakes as personal things rather than artifacts of collaboration and interaction - but that's a big part of the problem and what companies are most interested in. So I'm developing a workbook focused on workgroups handling mistakes better and creating a mistake tolerant culture. I'll be walking through that with a group of project managers in September as a first test.

I'm interested to see how it turns out...

Cynthia Kurtz said...

I was going to say "happy to help out" but that's not what I really want to say. I didn't help out in the end; I got far more out of keeping my promise than you did. Your "new stuff" sounds great and I will be eagerly awaiting what you come up with next.