“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen, Anthem
Making mistakes. We all do it, in both our personal and professional lives. “To err is human…,” the old saying goes. And most of us say, if asked, that we agree whole heartedly with the adage–especially when it refers to someone else! When the principle becomes personal, however, its is much more difficult to be so broad-minded.
Think about it for a minute: can you name five things you are wrong about? Three? How about the last mistake you made in your clinical work? What was it? Did you share it with the person you were working with? With your colleagues?
Research shows there are surprising benefits to being wrong, especially when the maker views such errors differently. As author Alina Tugend points out in her fabulous book, Better by Mistake, custom wrongly defines a mistake as ” the failure of a planned sequence of mental or physical activities to achieve its intended outcome.” When you forget a client’s name during a session or push a door instead of pull, that counts as slip or lapse. A mistake, by contrast, is when “the plan itself is inadequate to achieve it’s objectives” (p. 11). Knowing the difference, she continues, “can be very helpful in avoiding mistakes in the future” because it leads exploration away from assigning blame to the exploring systems, processes, and conditions that either cause mistakes or thwart their detection.
Last week, I was working with a talented and energetic group of helping professionals in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The topic was, “Achieving Excellence: Pushing One’s Clinical Performance to the Next Level of Effectiveness.” As part of my presentation, I talked about becoming more, “error-centric” in our work; specifically, using ongoing measurement of the alliance to identify opportunities for improving our connection with consumers of behavioral health services. As an example of the benefits of making mistakes the focus of professional development efforts, I showed a brief video of Rachel Hsu and Roger Chen, two talented musicians who performed at the last Achieving Clinical Excellence (ACE) conference. Rachel plays a piece by Liszt, Roger one by Mozart. Both compositions are extremely challenging to play. You tell me how they did (by the way, Rachel is 8 years old, Roger. 9):
Following her performance, I asked Rachel if she’d made any mistakes during her performance. She laughed, and then said, “Yes, a lot!” When I asked her what she did about that, she replied, “Well, its impossible to learn from my mistakes while I’m playing. So I note them and then later practice those small bits, over and over, slow at first, then speeding up, until I get them right.”
After showing the video in New Bedford, a member of the audience raised his hand, “I get it but that whole idea makes me a bit nervous.” I knew exactly what he was thinking. Highlighting one’s mistakes in public is risky business. Studies documenting that the most effective clinicians experience more self-doubt and are more willing to admit making mistakes is simply not convincing when one’s professional self-esteem or job may be on the line. Neither is research showing that health care professionals who admit making mistakes and apologize to consumers are significantly less likely to be sued. Becoming error centric, requires a change in culture, one that not only invites discloure but connects it with the kind of support and structure that leads to superior results.
Creating a “whoops-friendly” culture will be a focus of the next Achieving Clinical Excellence conference, scheduled for May 16-18th, 2013 in Amsterdam, Holland. Researchers and clinicians from around the world will gather to share their data and experience at this unique event. I promise you don’t want to miss it. Here’s a short clip of highlights from the last one:
My colleague, Susanne Bargmann and I will also be teaching the latest research and evidence based methods for transforming mistakes into improved clinical performance at the upcoming FIT Advanced Intensive training in Chicago, Illinois. I look forward to meeting you at one of these upcoming events. In the meantime, here’s a fun, brief but informative video from the TED talks series on mistakes:
By the way, the house pictured above is real. My family and I visited it while vacationing in Niagara Falls, Canada in October. It’s a tourist attraction actually. Mistakes, it seems, can be profitable.