Jed Cohen

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Troubleshooting Theory

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Something wrong?

Okay, confused kitten isn't really related to this post. (via flickr/fofurasfelinas)

Well then let’s try to fix it.

We can break troubleshooting theory down into four simple steps:

  1. Determine all possible causes of your problem.
  2. Remove one half of all the potential causes.
  3. Test to see if your problem is still there.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until you’ve narrowed it down to one specific cause.

The process really isn’t difficult.  We all run through these steps when we encounter a problem.  I can’t get in my car.  Is it me?  Is it my car?  What about me isn’t right?  Oh, I left my keys on my desk?  Cause isolated; when I get my keys my problem isn’t a problem anymore.

Of course, we don’t actively follow each of these steps when we go about our daily lives.  But we can apply this process to almost any process we have problems with, from marketing campaigns to computer programs to people development at work.

So where’s the challenge?

We aren’t experts.

This process works well for us when we know something about the field the problem is in.  I could apply all the troubleshooting theory I want, but there’s no way I’m going to be able to isolate the cause of an issue with the space shuttle.  Or diagnose someone suffering from, well, just about any medical problem.

Sometimes we can figure out the first few steps.

Why doesn’t my television turn on?  Is the problem with the remote or the television itself?  Okay, the television turns on when I press the button on the front.  Let’s replace the batteries in the remote and test again.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we can’t figure out what to do.

Why is the “check engine” light on my car on?  I don’t know.  And I have no idea what possible causes there are so I have no possibilities to split in half (and for that matter no tests to run).  This is where we turn things over to the experts, specialists who can identify and resolve our problem for us.  They do what we’d do, if we knew what we were talking about.  They run tests.  They reduce possibilities.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we are afraid to do anything.

Then there are times when we don’t want to make a mistake and make things worse.  Even though we might have an idea of what is wrong or where to start, we don’t want to take that risk.  Perhaps fear isn’t the right word.  Maybe it’s trepidation.  We are uncertain in our own ability to fix the problem, so we don’t touch the matter at hand.  We go and find an expert, who applies these troubleshooting steps for us.  And so on and so on.

This can be a good thing, if the solution is esoteric, or if what we would do is potentially harmful to our goals.  But it can also be detrimental when the solution is simple and our fear stops us from acting.  It’s why there are consultants for hiring decisions, for firing decisions, for personal development.  Because we’re not sure what we’re doing, and these may just be among the most important actions of any company.

So what do we do?

The reasons for our fear varies, but I think it is in part because of the quirkiness of our psychology.  Our minds are optimized to succeed – most of the time.  It’s why we have common sense and rules of thumb to follow.  So when we encounter a situation outside of our comfort areas, something doesn’t translate.  We apply the rules we’re used to to situations we’re not.  Which doesn’t always have the happiest of endings.

We’ll never be perfect (surprise!).  But maybe we can get better.  By taking a look at the results of our past troubleshooting attempts, we might just be able to figure out where our psychology goes wrong and take steps to correct it.  I suppose we’re troubleshooting our troubleshooting – and isn’t that something worth doing every once in a while?

Written by Jed

February 9th, 2010 at 10:46 pm