If you work for a living, then part of what you do is solve problems. These problems might consist of people or things; they might range from office politics, to printers that refuse to print and LANS that just won’t LAN. In any case you get paid to fix them.
We’ll start with the easy stuff. The physical world -- these are all the things that do exactly what we tell them to and are literally incapable of doing anything they’re not supposed to. So, when you encounter a problem, ask yourself some questions.
When? Did it ever work the way you think it should? Are you 100 percent certain? Did you see it with your own eyes? Or are you relying on second hand testimony? There is a very good reason why hearsay evidence isn’t allowed into a court of law. Before you set out trying to make something do something, make sure it used to do it in the first place.
What changed? Once you know it did it once, the most important question is what changed to cause it to stop doing what it was doing. "I didn’t do anything! It just stopped working!" is usually the cry of someone trying to hide what they did, or someone who did something they didn’t think would interfere with the smooth running of the universe.
Why now? But sometimes the above claim is both honest and accurate. Nobody did anything. Something happened to change the status quo that nobody knows about. A fuse burnt, a circuit breaker did its job, the power fluctuated, the gas tank is empty, the cat unplugged something.
Where else? Is there another copy of the same thing that is working as it should? Can we compare these two things, atom by atom if necessary, to identify what’s going wrong?
What if? Problem solving is the fine art of changing the world until it fits the vision in your mind. Go slowly in your changes, impatience is the enemy of progress. If you change more than one thing at a time, then you’ll never know which thing you did that made things better or worse, or even if they are competing for dominance and causing failure in the attempt.
Why not? Remember all the out-of-the-box thinking stuff you’ve been hearing about? Simply stated all it means is -- when what you’ve tried hasn’t worked, it’s time to work what you haven’t tried.
THE HUMAN FACE
Now let’s turn to the graduate school of problem solving. This is where everything involved has a mind of its own, and might not want to be fixed. Welcome to the wild and wooly world of people problems.
Why you? When working with people problems it is absolutely crucial that you are honest with yourself and lay out your personal agenda in the scenario in front of you. You cannot solve a people problem as an outsider. To attempt to solve a people problem is to become a player in the drama.
Who cares? Now that you’ve established you’re involved, who else is party to this problem? Until you know all the players, how they interact and what their primary agendas are, you’ll be playing poker with half the deck and not sure if a full house beats a flush.
Who wins? Who gains from the current situation, and who gains if the situation shifts in another direction? People problems are usually brought about by perceptions of win/loss outcomes. Sometimes the perceptions are correct, other times they need clarification and correction.
Who loses? Rule No. 1 of human nature -- nobody likes to lose. It’s not always possible to find the holy grail of the win/win outcome, but it’s nearly always possible to find a win/(lose less) solution. It is also possible to lessen the blow of loss if the winner is aware that gloating aggravates the loss.
What now? Problem solving is a difficult task, made all the more difficult when we scurry from problem to problem without taking the time to examine past wins and losses. Each solution, regardless of effectiveness is a step towards the solution of the next problem, if and only if we take the time to look backward.
Like all art, to appreciate problem solving best you need to stand back from it a bit.
de Jager is a consultant, speaker and obsessive-compulsive problem solver. Contact him at email@example.comPeterP