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

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? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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:

Emergency extrication trainingEmergency Problem Solving
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningTackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
A knot known as the Flemish BendHelp for Finding Help
When we find ourselves at a loss for finding a good path forward, and we feel overwhelmed by events, support can make things easier. But seeking support is difficult for some. Why is that?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

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.