Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 2;   January 13, 2016: When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II

When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning. Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
A curious baby

A curious baby. According to Prof. Laura E. Schulz, associate professor of cognitive science in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at MIT, babies' approach to learning about the world has much in common with the scientific method. In some sense, we would do better at debugging complex systems if we took a more childlike approach. Photo (cc) Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 by Kenny Louie courtesy Wikimedia.

To repair complex systems, many resort to "random twiddling and part replacement" (RTAPR) when they're under time and resource constraints. Sadly, RTAPR doesn't work very well. For example, consider a system that has six commercial off-the-shelf components. Let's suppose that it isn't working right. We decide to replace Module 2, which produces no change — the system continues to misbehave. Some might conclude that this proves that Module 2 is OK, but that conclusion might be mistaken. Suppose that the problem lies in the firmware of Module 2, which controls how it operates on the data it receives from Module 1. Since both of our Module 2 boxes contained the same firmware, the system behavior didn't change when we made the swap. A conclusion that Module 2 was not involved in the fault would therefore be incorrect.

A more careful approach can work better than RTAPR. Here are some guidelines that form the basis of what is usually called the scientific method.

Perform no random experiments
Random experiments, especially those involving system configuration changes, are unlikely to produce new knowledge. The more complicated the system, the less productive are random experiments.
Keep excellent records
Record the Random experiments, especially if
they involve system configuration
changes, are unlikely to
produce new knowledge
details of all experiments and results. Typically, you won't refer to these notes until you're completely stumped, but that happens with alarming frequency for complex systems. So write the notes so as to make them clear in that kind of desperate situation.
Try to replicate unwanted behavior
(a) If the unwanted behavior is reliably repeatable, observe the results of making a minimal change to the system. Any change in behavior can be revealing. (b) If the unwanted behavior isn't repeatable, try to find a system configuration that makes it repeatable, and then go to (a). In all such experiments, controlling the system's containing environment is essential.
Base all attempts on hypotheses
Because the input configuration for a complicated system is also complicated, proving that complicated systems work for all required inputs is difficult. Hypotheses about why the system isn't working are equally difficult to prove. Hypotheses can more readily be disproven than proven.
Therefore, have a testable hypothesis in mind whenever you change the system configuration. Testable hypotheses are of this form (for example): "The fault might be A. If experiment B produces behavior C, then the fault cannot be A." Repeating this process gradually eliminates possibilities until only the truth remains.
Fail forward
Devise hypotheses and experiments that cause your investigation to "fail forward." That is, favor experiments that produce useful knowledge whatever the outcome of the experiment. If you make a change and the system starts working, that should help explain what was wrong. And if that same change causes some other result, that, too, should be enlightening information.

Adhering to these guidelines can be difficult, especially under pressure. If deviation is required, make note of it, and note how deviations affect your conclusions. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Virtual Clutter: I  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

PizzaCritical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation OverlordGroup Problem-Solving Tangles
When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
Platypus swimmingSolving the Problem of Solving Problems
Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsTackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
Clouds at seaThirty Useful Questions
Whether solving technical problems, creating plans, or puzzling through political tangles, asking the right questions can be the key to finding useful approaches. An example: What questions would I like to know the answers to?

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Unripe grapes that are probably sourComing August 19: Motivated Reasoning
When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security. Available here and by RSS on August 19.
The battleship @Cite{USS Arizona, burning during the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941And on August 26: Motivated Reasoning and the Pseudocertainty Effect
When we have a preconceived notion of what conclusion a decision process should produce, we sometimes engage in "motivated reasoning" to ensure that we get the result we want. But when we do this in relation to a chain of decisions in the context of uncertainty, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on August 26.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.