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Problem-Solving: What Are You Doing Right?
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.

Suppose that instead of the usual gloom and doom meeting where you try to figure out what's wrong with a project, your boss starts with "O.K. folks, we've got a glitch somewhere. Let's talk first about all the stuff we know is working just fine. We know the prototype works, so we know this can be done. Let's see why the prototype works and go from there."

Why does this work better than the usual "We've got a problem and somebody's messed up. I don't want to hear any excuses. Just find it and fix it."

First, it starts with the positive, rather than the negative.

Starting with a focus on what's wrong leads to defensiveness and arguments and finger-pointing. Not to mention foot-dragging. Do you want to go out and prove you made a mistake? Or listen to someone else tell you how you must be incompetent?

Starting with a positive outlook leads to more open minds and enthusiasm for work. Everyone is beginning with the confidence that almost everything is going well, they are doing a good job, and the problem they have to solve is a small mystery that will soon be cleared up.

A positive approach starts with people feeling good about the project and about working with each other and that leads to more creative interactions.

The approach works on virtually any kind of problem, in any kind of situation, whether you want to resolve your own problem or help someone else resolve theirs. It works for product failures, for software rollouts, for mending relationships, for correcting misdiagnoses, for misanalyses, for editing writing -- you name it.

I had a great English teacher in college. (I think I took five or six courses from him.) I remember he started with "This is a good analysis. I think if it were taken strictly within the context of the scene, it would be an interpretation consistent with the characters involved and what you would normally expect in the real world. But we're not playing in the real world. Can you say that your interpretation is consistent with the themes and symbols the author is using throughout the play?" You see? He didn't tell me he had a problem with my thinking. He told me my thinking was very good. He simply challenged me to think about it in a different way and see if I found an interpretation that fit better. He asked me to feel good about myself and see if I could improve. How could I not want to work on that?

Second, it tells you what's working so you don't waste time trying to fix it.

When you're looking for what's wrong, it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Usually what's wrong is tiny and hard to see. It's surrounded by all the stuff that's right and belongs there.

When you look for problems, you tend to look at larger "chunks" in hopes of finding the problem faster and getting the pain over with. That's just the usually human tendency. But, if the problem is, in fact, in the large component, you end up have to break it down further and further until you find it. And all the time, you keep getting failure after failure until you reach the smallest unit that fails.

If you break the project down into small components that you are confident work, you actually perform your tests faster, because working to prove the "good" is a lot more pleasant than working to prove the "bad." It's very rewarding to keep testing components that succeed, so you don't mind as much running all the small tests. And since you've already broken the project down into the smallest working unit you can use, you can spot the problem much more quickly when the component fails.

Third, it gives you a chance to compare what's worked before or what's working in other similar areas to get an idea of what's different in this case.

If you're starting with what's right about your project, you're actually looking at what usually works with your most prevalent methodology.

Individuals working on home-based start-ups and organizations of all sizes have this in common: you have established methods, approaches and work patterns that have proven successful in the past. You recreate those methods, approaches and patterns with every new project. When something goes wrong, it is usually because 1) you've strayed from your usual way of doing things, or 2) you are applying your usual way of doing things in an area where it doesn't work.

If you are looking for what's right in your work, you may take the time to confirm that you are proceeding as usual, and that proceeding as usual is the right way.

There's an editor I know who has a habit of using the "what's different" question to help his writers work through their blocks and their weak areas in their writing. He'll say something like "This is good. It can go as it is. But this is different from what you usually do..." (or what I expected, or what your readers usually get from you, etc.) He'll go on to describe other, better pieces of work the writer has done and the methods the writer used to turn out a better work product. No writer likes criticism, but an acceptance of the flawed work with a comparison to prior excellence isn't hard to hear. It gets him thinking about how and why the current work could be better. And wanting to live up to his own methods and standards of excellence.

~ Start with what's right, and the problem will be easily found -- along with its solution. ~



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