Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ok, Houston, we've had a problem here

For sure you have heard of this mythical exclamation from Jack Swigert during Apolo 13 mission in the seventies. Then this expression has been used and often abused by almost anybody. And if you work in a tech company like I do, even more.

Jokes apart, having problems and struggling to find brilliant solutions to problems is a daily routine in most companies. And when finding a brilliant solution is not that easy, well at least efforts should be made to find a cheap solution. And if money is not a problem, well let’s try to make it work as soon as possible. And if finding a brilliant, cheap and fast idea is not possible at all, the challenge is simply “make it work the way you can”.

What I have seen in some years of experience in different roles and working on different products is that finding a procedure or process to systematize troubleshooting is not so straightforward.
Besides, forecasting problems is an activity often beyond companies' worries.
And last but not least, one of the few certainties is that Murphy’s law is always true: then problems will occur when you are working under pressure or through tight schedules.

Simply, behaviours oriented to problem solving do not exist. Although there is a lot of literature around, the best you can find is a list of steps ranging from sitting down, having coffee and brainstorming altogether, to “let’s add more people and let’s try to improve competence as fast as possible”.

Possibly there is no panacea for troubleshooting. What is socially acceptable is a meeting to find out a solution in a brainstorming session. Of course this is a way, if we manage to solve the issue or at least find out a workaround, then we’re a team, we’re good at meeting and solving stuff.
In case we fail, we’ll fail altogether, therefore any other solution was out of reach and we did the best we could. There’s no responsible, no guilt, but still no solution.

Brainstorming might possibly work when team building is the objective. It also might seem the best tool when stress and pressure move people out of the comfort zone and the brain disconnects channels devoted to finding creative solutions.

What are the problems with brainstorming? Probably expectation. It’s good to have high expectations on one tool, but brainstorming is simply not a tool.
Besides structural weaknesses of brainstorming such as productivity loss, lack of direction and free riding there may be personal factors like fearing the risk, competition among the participants and undermining others’ proposals.

Brainstorming does not seem to be the solution to discover systematically solid steps for problem solving. There are also some techniques and patterns that might provide help at the time of finding a creative alternative, in a structured way. Yes, it sounds weird, I am saying providing a structure to creativity, but there is something else beyond brainstorming.

"As usual, for these co-written things, John often had just the first verse, which was always enough: it was the direction, it was the signpost and it was the inspiration for the whole song. I hate the word but it was the template." Paul McCartney