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?
At this point, you may start to feel you have a pretty good idea of what the problem is, so ...