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 2016]. 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:
- Problem-Solving Ambassadors
- In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual
interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters
of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
- Annoyance to Asset
- Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another,
are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated.
Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from
a liability to a valuable asset.
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- The Tyranny of Singular Nouns
- When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept,
such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all
solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our
lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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