From the outset, sound quality on the virtual conference was poor, even with that wonderful new system that shows everyone each site's whiteboard, and lets everyone see each other. After 10 minutes it got so bad that they suspended the conference and resumed on a plain old bridge line. The CEO was livid. But there was no alternative right then.
Overnight, people from IT and Facilities and the vendors went over the system, updated the firmware, replaced some boxes at two sites and got things working. When people signed in for the second session of the meeting the next morning, it worked a little better, but after 10 minutes, the system was again unusable. They had to sign off and resume on the bridge line. "Livid" was no longer a word strong enough to describe the CEO's state of mind.
The system didn't work, but more deeply disturbing is the problem-solving approach of IT, Facilities, and the vendors, which could be called "random twiddling and part replacement" (RTAPR). It's a standard method, and it usually ends in tragedy, because it wastes time and resources, rarely provides a lasting fix, and delays (if not precludes forever any possibility of) determining root causes.
Whether it's a complex system of electronics and software (as in our example), a process design for projects in a large enterprise, or regulations governing the banking system, RTAPR rarely works. So why do people approach complex problems this way? Here are four factors that drive us down this particular blind alley.
- Periodic reinforcement
- Every once in a while, RTAPR works. The chance that it might work again seduces us into trying it, against our better judgment. Psychologists call this phenomenon periodic reinforcement.
- Extreme time pressure
- Exerting Whether it's a complex system
of electronics and software, or
regulations governing the banking
system, "Random Twiddling and
Part Replacement" rarely workspressure on repair teams limits their ability to perform problem diagnosis. The greater the pressure, the more powerful is the urge to use RTAPR.
- Limited availability of relevant expertise
- Staffing the repair team is a task that itself requires expertise, because the repair team needs expertise in all relevant fields. [Brenner 2015]. Unless they have the expertise they need, their only real recourse is RTAPR.
- Confidentiality or security
- Complex systems can exhibit problems in patterns we call "intermittent," though the term intermittent might not be truly applicable. Often, the problem is predictable, but we lack the knowledge needed to predict it. That's why someone with appropriate expertise must be present at the onset of the difficulty. Sometimes the people with the needed expertise lack the stature (or maybe the security clearance) necessary to be "in the room" waiting for an incident. In some cases, unless qualified system experts can be present for the incidents, identifying the conditions that precipitate the difficulty can be impossible.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Make Space for Serendipity
- Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it.
If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: I
- When groups of decision makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts
or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
- Virtual Brainstorming: I
- When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic.
Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
- We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying
- Capturing data about incidents of bullying is helpful in creating awareness of the problem. But it's
like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. Forward-looking data that predicts
bullying incidents is also necessary.
- Goodhart's Law and Reification
- Goodhart's Law, applied to organizations, is an observation about managing by metrics. When we make
known the goals for our metrics, we risk having the metrics lose their ability to measure. The risk
is elevated when we try to "measure" abstractions.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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