Making Mistakes and Problem Solving

“Defining the problem is the last step in problem solving.” I thought it was an easy question on the pre-test I give my Back To Work students, but it’s not. It’s the one True/False question that is most often answered incorrectly.

One way to fix a road. Or, tar dribble.

When asked what they think the first step in problem solving is (OK, I encourage them to make stuff up) I hear, “Suggesting something—anything.” “Asking what the boss wants.” “Keep your mouth shut, if you suggest it, you have to do it.”

I feel their pain. It’s hard to get to the solution if you don’t know what the problem is. And it’s hard to nail down the problem. Which makes “defining the problem” the first step in problem solving. You can’t solve it if it’s a moving target.

The way many problems show up is when we make a mistake. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to screw up–not in the studio, not at work, not in front of our friends. But we do. Often on cell phone cameras and YouTube. Most mistakes are actions we wish we could take back the instant we know they are a mistake. And we can’t.

And that’s why we need to fix them ourselves. Not rush to the boss, our mom, our best friend, our coach, teacher or mentor and say, “Tell me what to do.” Admittedly, it sounds great to run for cover.

The person who does the work, screws up, recognizes the screw-up is also the best person to determine the solution. Notice I’m not saying “have all the answers,” or even “Do the fixing as punishment,” but to create the solution. Because when you screw up, you know how it happened. Which is defining the problem in a glaringly clear way.

My answer to “What do I do now?” comes in a matched set of three:

1. Know what went wrong. Make sure it is the real cause, not the loud one. When I dropped a tiny piece of sodium into water (pure sodium, not salt, which is sodium chloride) there was a big bang that broke the beaker and made a lot of smoke. What went wrong was not the bang, the fright or the mess, but the fact that I didn’t know how quickly the sodium would react with the water, releasing that damn explosive hydrogen gas.

2. Create a solution. There will be more than one. There will be more than one right one. In my case, it was understanding what happened, gratitude that we wore safety goggles, thinking maybe the instructor should demo this instead of letting us mis-judge how small “a small piece of sodium” is.

3. Tell your boss by accepting responsibility and suggesting a solution. Accepting responsibility helps keep your credibility, which is important. It also acknowledges the next step: that you know what to do. This also applies to artists, working alone in the studio. It’s generally not the fault of the watercolor or paper, stencil or sewing machine. Once you admit to yourself (that’s the boss, right?) what you did, you can move on to deciding how not to do that again. Or doing something different.

In the case of a business mistake, you want to be the one to suggest the solution, because you have the best information. You can also suggest a solution that will have a good outcome, whether it’s asking for help,  or asking that your solution be considered first. Leave the answer to the boss, and you may not like the solution, think it may not work, and have to do it anyway.

Note: The winners have been chosen for the Raw Art Journaling and Monsoon Papers giveaway.  Congratulations Melydia on winning the book, and Laurie Morris and Lisa from Artist Cellar have won the paper. Thanks to all for participating!

Quinn McDonald has made enough mistakes to figure out how to solve them practically and in a way that saves you from stomping on your own ego.