Here in the United States, our business culture tends to be action-oriented. We value the ability to think fast and act decisively. These qualities can be strengths. However, like most strengths, they can also be a weakness. Taking action when you don’t know the facts can lead to irreparable harm. Deciding too quickly before you’ve examined your options can lead you down the wrong path. Fixing fast may assuage symptoms but leave the underlying problem to fester.
Treating symptoms may work with the common cold, but with many technical and organizational problems it’s a prescription for disaster. Before you chase a solution, slow down and make sure you are looking at the underlying problem, not just soothing symptoms. (Sometimes, as with the common cold, you do need relief from symptoms in order to make any progress.) Of course, we can’t always tell right away whether we are fixing a symptom or an underlying issue. But, if the problem keeps coming back, you can be sure that you’ve been dancing around manifestations of the problem, not tackling the problem itself.
Start by Questioning Your Questions
Every question contains assumptions. While a question opens one avenue of inquiry, it closes others. The questions you ask constrain your thinking about the problem and your eventual solution. For example, in one company, the executives weren’t satisfied with the speed with which the IT department delivered projects. They sacked the VP of the IT department and brought in a new one with a reputation for decisive management action. The new VP immediately started asking questions, which seems like a good sign, until you know her questions:
Where is the dead wood?
How can we get the testers and developers to work harder and move faster?
These questions assume the source of the problem: lazy and incompetent people. But, what if the reason projects are late has something to do with the fact that people are assigned to several projects at the same time or that priorities change so quickly that teams never reach “done” before they are pulled to work on the latest urgent issue? The VP has already narrowed her inquiry and will only arrive at “solutions” that involve firing the “dead wood” and whipping those deemed “live wood.”
Examining our questions is critical, because not only do our perceptions influence the language we use, but also the language we use influences what we perceive.
Starting with a more general set of questions will help reduce perceptual bias and uncover the facts of a problem situation:
What are the visible symptoms?
What other effects can we observe?
Who cares about this issue?
What is the impact on that person/group?
What is the impact on our organization?
What other factors might contribute to the problem situation?
What other events might influence the context?
These questions may lead you closer to the real problem, or at least help you see whether the area you are looking at is the most fruitful for alleviating pain. Based on this, choose where to delve deeper, and get more specific as you explore the details of the situation:
When does the problem occur?
How frequently does it occur?
Is the occurrence regular or irregular?
Does it always happen, or is it an exception?
Under what circumstances does the problem occur?
What are the circumstances under which it doesn’t occur?
What else is happening around the same time? Are those factors connected?
At this point, you may start to feel you have a pretty good idea of what the problem is, so …
Back Up Your Hunches with Data
These questions will give you some clues as to the problem, but data will confirm your hunch (or point you in a different direction). I’m not talking about a measurement program here, but simple, “good enough” data gathered from observation or existing sources. Once you have data, look at it from several vantage points, or you may miss something important.
For example, at a large financial services company, operations analysts collected data on the number of minutes during which each application was unavailable during core business hours. They presented the data at a monthly management meeting using a pie chart. The chart clearly showed which application had the largest portion “outage minutes” for the month. Presenting the data in a pie chart facilitated putting the manager of the offending application on the hot seat at the management meeting. But, it didn’t help much with understanding the problem, or knowing where to look for solutions.
By the time I arrived to help them solve their problems, they had many months of data, and looking at it differently provided useful information.
I used the questions above to guide how I viewed the data. I looked at the total number of outage minutes each month. I look at the trends for each application. I looked at outages in time series. But, the data didn’t answer the question, what is the impact on our organization? I set out to answer that question, and found that not all outages were equal. A day-long outage in a specialized application only affected ten people. A five-minute outage in another system meant everyone in the department—several hundred people—couldn’t access any applications, but it had only happened once. A short outage in an application used by one-third of the department that happened every day accounted for most of the outage minutes over time. Knowing this didn’t solve the problem, but it told them where to focus their fixing.
Quick-fixers may bemoan the amount of time I spent cleaning the data, looking at it this way and that way, asking more questions and gathering more data. It took about a week. Of course it did take a bit more time to repeat this process at the application level. Still, taken in total, the time spent asking questions and gathering data was far less than the time that had passed while management tried to understand the situation with data presented in way that hid useful information—and less then the outage minutes for all affected employees for one month.
Generate At Least Three Candidate Solutions
Now, it’s time to look for possible solutions. Quick-fix thinking conditions us to choose the first idea that’s even remotely plausible. Don’t dismiss your first idea, but don’t stop there either. Develop at least three candidate solutions. You may go back to your first idea, but by developing additional options, you’ll understand the problem better. If you have difficulty thinking of more than one candidate solution, turn your thought process upside down and ask, “How could we make the situation worse?” That paradoxical question almost always jiggles more ideas loose.
As part of developing a solution, identify at least ten things that could go wrong with each candidate solution. Looking at the downsides might send you back to generating more options. Sometimes the best solution isn’t the most elegant; it’s the one with the fewest or least objectionable downsides.
Once you have several options to choose from, choose one and put it motion. Chances are it won’t work out quite as planned—and that’s an opportunity for learning. Observe and gather data, re-adjust, and try again.
Every solution carries the seed to the next problem. That’s a given. When you apply systematic thinking to the problem, it’s less likely that next problem will compound the problem you were trying to fix in the first place.