October 1, 2018

The Two Most Important Problem Solving Activities

How many times have you seen this happen?

A major IT problem blows up. Managers are running around, gathering everyone in a room. Systems engineers are talking loudly and rapidly. Executives are calling for status. The white board is covered with colors and shapes. The clock is ticking, so key technical personnel are released to “start working on it.” Hours go by, and several technical solutions are tried without success. Service complaints are rolling in and the team is exhausted. Finally, the right solution is applied, and systems are restored, after a messy 10-hour ordeal that didn’t look great to customers.  

The very common scenario above unfolded because the two most important activities in problem solving were ignored. On one hand, these two activities are incredibly simple and almost guarantee rapid and correct problem solving. On the other hand, these activities have proven to be incredibly difficult for managers to consistently lead and teams to consistently perform and seem to be almost against human nature. But the effort is worth it; developing these two disciplines for problem solving situation will always result in a much better outcome for customers and the team.

So, what are the two activities?

  • First: Do nothing.
  • Then: Decide what problem you’re solving.

The first thing to notice is these aren’t linear steps in a magic problem-solving formula. These are critical, holistic activities to be performed within the context of an overall targeted approach. (I’ll describe effective and ineffective problem-solving approaches in a later post.) The second thing to notice is how specific and discrete these activities are: Do nothing, then identify the problem to be solved. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and yet if you adopt these as regular practices, you will be amazed by how much more quickly and reliably your problem-solving activities proceed. Also, note this isn’t just a crisis management tool – these activities are fundamental to solving ANY type of problem or challenge, at any scale.

Why is Doing Nothing So Important?

When a stressful incident happens, the first impulse is to DO. This is a direct result of the “lizard brain’s” effect on the human body and consciousness. Seth Godin and others have done a great job describing the “lizard brain” and how to manage it, so it would be well worth spending a bit of time looking into that topic. As our stress rises to meet the incident, we want to fix it and typically spring into action. As intelligent, experienced people, we often “play tapes” from our successful past and immediately re-enact responses that have worked before. We typically move quickly to act because we’re driven by adrenaline, a sense of purpose, a sense of urgency, possibly fear of consequences, and the excitement of something “big” happening.

When we react in this manner, no matter how intelligent or experienced we are, we begin moving and acting without fully understanding the problem, and without a real plan. From that point forward, all actions will end up being to some degree ad hoc, even if a rigorous problem-solving approach is later added. More importantly, the tone of urgent action is immediately set, so everyone else involved is galvanized and perpetuates reactivity. This is why it’s so familiar for everyone to “get into a room” and start talking loudly and rapidly and sketching all sorts of things on the whiteboard.

By doing nothing, we completely short circuit and stop reactivity. We put ourselves into a more objective frame of mind where we begin to think clearly about the problem, the surrounding issues, and the response. We prepare ourselves to listen, speak, and act calmly and with specific purpose, instead of falling into established response patterns from the past.The few moments of doing nothing sets the stage for a professional, coordinated response that reduces stress on the team and leads to an effective plan. Finally, doing nothing gives the mind a chance to slow down, absorb the issue, and begin thinking through the best ways to approach the problem.

I can’t overestimate the power of doing nothing. It’s uncomfortable at first and may even feel irresponsible when you’re faced with a truly critical issue. But I urge you to try it if you’re not already doing it, because it will greatly improve your ability to effectively respond to a problem-solving situation.

What Problem Are You Solving?

So, now that you’ve done nothing for a while, it’s time to start solving the problem! Whether explicit or not, some form of problem solving approach always emerges. Generally speaking, the better defined the approach, the better the outcome. Even a poor problem-solving approach will typically produce a better result than a completely ad hoc approach driven by demanding voices or somebody “in charge.” In many cases, the team immediately launches into brainstorming about the root cause, and an effort to devise tests that definitively identify the root cause.

But what exactly is the problem? Have you ever experienced something like this, after everyone gets into the proverbial room?

  • New or Junior Employee: I don’t understand the problem.
  • Configuration Manager: It’s a permissions problem.
  • Server Admin: It’s a code problem.
  • Developer: It’s a server problem.
  • Network Admin: It’s not a network problem.
  • Storage/Virtualization Admin: I don’t see a problem.
  • Systems Architect: We should have used xyz system I recommended.
  • Project Manager: It’s a testing problem.
  • Executive: Why do we keep having problems?
  • Customer: I can’t do anything, everything’s completely broken.

And from what perspective do you express the problem? Do you express it in terms of the end user effect (“I can’t log in”), in terms of a technical fault (“Active Directory is down”), in terms of customer service impact (“Customer X can’t use Y service”), or in some other way?

Unless your team explicitly works toward and agrees on a specific problem definition, each team member will view the problem in a different way and act accordingly, even within the bounds of a specific problem-solving approach.

The process of identifying exactly what problem you’re solving can unfold in many ways, so there’s no reason to prefer one approach over another. The key point is to explicitly work toward problem identification and definition before acting, so the team has a shared understanding and works toward the common goal of solving “that” particular problem.

Summary: When encountering a problem to be solved, first doing nothing and then specifically defining the problem results in an efficient, coordinated, and effective response.

Thanks for reading!


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