Saturday, March 9, 2019

Managing Difficult Problems

I can no longer count the number of times that I've been able to re-invigorate a problem investigation, even if I have zero visibility on the actual problem.  This takes some self-discipline that doesn't come easy, especially during an urgent investigation.

Here's that one weird trick:

I do the depth of reading myself.  If I see multiple threads, I'll read all of them.  Then I will write as short a summary of all of the facts that I can.  Re-summarizing all of the relevant facts that have been shared, pointing out the places where multiple people or departments have a differing view of the facts, and sometimes suggesting a list of questions that should be put back to the customer (the person who is reporting the problem), will usually refocus and reinvigorate the investigation.

Wait what?

When something goes wrong, e-mails have a tendency of getting very long reply chains as people add a few sentences and add more people who might be able to help.  This is pretty normal, and isn't actually a terrible way to go about finding a problem solution.  The urgency is obvious, so most people just skim the top-most e-mails, and keep the chain moving.

On a normal day, few people will read e-mails beyond about two pages worth of text (some report as little as a paragraph).  During a difficult or urgent problem, depth of reading is not likely to get better.  I'm not here to lament this, it is just a fact about humans.

Why?

I started doing this back when I did product support (so long ago it doesn't even hit my resume anymore).  It came from a place of wanting to be able to contribute even when I didn't know the answer myself.  Sometimes by writing the summary, I would be able to see the actual problem and just answer with a solution.  Most often, though, the questions I would come up with would lead directly to a solution.  Frankly, it might be one of the things that I did that helped others think that I should be a manager.

Now, as a manager, I know that I am rarely going to have the answer, so it seems natural to continue doing the depth of reading and actually contributing back a summary and a few questions.  That is, to me, the very act of trying to write a summary of a problem naturally leads to important insights into a problem.

Problem space

It would seem that the people who have been on the thread since the beginning would be annoyed at seeing all the things they already said be repeated.  This has happened twice that I know of over the last 20 years.  It has never happened when the summary also brings up a disparity of reported facts.  In any case, I've taken to explicitly starting with a line similar to this, "I am summarizing this thread to clarify my understanding of what is going on here, and to introduce the problem to those recently added."  I also find it very important to end with something like this, "If I have anything wrong, or I missed an important detail, please let me know."

Every time I've done this, it has led to immediate changes.  First, it is a point where a large number of people can legitimately leave the investigation (even if they can just start ignoring the thread).  That is, some folks who know they have nothing to do with the problem are literally only hanging on to make sure that their one piece of input was heard.  Especially in cases where I am pointing out a dispute in the facts, a number of people will re-investigate the dispute.  About half of the time, the problem itself lies within the dispute.

Feedback

Please ask questions if you have them.  Also feel free to let me know if there's anything above that I should add.  I wish to improve this if I can.  After some time, I'm likely to republish this on LinkedIn.

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