Know Your Limits

This one is for the amateurs. And, we’re all amateurs. Even if you’re a professional that’s paid to fix things, you’re surely a novice in some context. The auto mechanic might not be good at fixing computers. A nuclear engineer won’t necessarily be up on the latest-and-greatest in the world of riding lawn mowers. Even when operating in their area of expertise, good troubleshooters know when they’re in over their heads. When this happens, they know to call for help!

The decision to troubleshoot is a combination of several interrelated factors:

  • Motivation: the pressure or driving force behind getting something fixed. If it’s part of your job, you may not have a choice in this regard.
  • Resources: time, money, people and tools available to help you troubleshoot.
  • Expertise: the ability to find the problem and make a particular repair. Even though you could learn how to fix something, the time and effort required might be prohibitive.
  • Risks/safety issues: knowing what’s at stake. Is the company’s fortunes riding on making a repair? Could someone die or get injured in the process?

The context in which you troubleshoot affects these factors greatly. Hobby-related troubleshooting projects typically have no deadlines: I’ve seen classic car and motorcycle restorations that have taken years to complete! In contrast, if you’re a technician working for a telecom company, chances are your clients expect problems to be fixed today. Any of the above considerations can also be the deciding factor to not troubleshoot. These same factors (motivation, resources, expertise, risks/safety) also come into play when deciding whether to call in a professional to help you fix something. Let’s weigh the pros and cons for getting involved with an outside professional in each of these categories:


  • Pros: If it must be fixed (and you can’t do it), then getting outside help might be the only way.
  • Cons: In a low-stakes situation, what’s the rush? In these cases, I like to see how far I can push myself—these relaxed scenarios are great for improving your troubleshooting skills. If you hit a wall you can always call for backup, so consider giving it a try by yourself first.


  • Pros: In the right context, hiring a professional can actually save resources. If the rest of your staff is busy with more important things, hiring a professional troubleshooter will allow them to continue uninterrupted. Sometimes a breakdown will hold up production, idling expensive materials, machines, and manpower. In these situations, a professional’s ability to reach a resolution faster can be worth many times their fees. Finally, hired guns often have access to expensive and specialized tools that you’d rather not buy just to make a single repair.
  • Cons: Hiring and managing a professional consumes its own resources. First off, there’s the professional’s fee, but this isn’t the only cost. You must first search for the right person or firm, selecting them among the various candidates (perhaps by checking references and vetting their previous work). Also, time is required to present the problem to them in a way they can understand and bring them up to speed about your infrastructure. You must coordinate schedules, deliver the broken system to them or make an appointment for them to come on site. Finally, when they say it’s fixed, will you need to double-check their work?


  • Pros: When you lack the ability to find the problem or make a particular repair, the need for a professional becomes obvious. Constraints may not allow you to learn what’s necessary in the timeframe required; delegation may not be possible because of a lack of staff.
  • Cons: The time you spend learning how to fix something yourself can pay dividends later. If a particular type of failure happens often enough, you’ll probably want to know how to repair it on your own.


  • Pros: A competent professional will be more aware of the hazards associated with attempting a given repair. If they are concerned with their reputation, they will typically advocate the safest path that guarantees results. Also, you might make the situation worse by botching a fix. I definitely have.
  • Cons: There’s always the chance of hiring someone who’s dishonest or incompetent (or, if you’re really cursed, both!). Dealing with the fallout of hiring a bad contractor can be very time consuming. Letting someone into your facilities risks theft and exposure of trade secrets. Also, if the repair is critical to your business, can you trust handing it over to someone else?
Vive L'Empereur, Edouard Detaille
Losing the fight? Time to call in the cavalry.
(image: Édouard Detaille / Wikimedia Commons)

Let The Circumstances Decide

One of my goals in writing The Art Of Troubleshooting is to lower the perceived barriers to troubleshooting through education. Even though the world of machines continues to increase in complexity, there’s still so much you can do for yourself. Knowing the basics and having a language to speak about troubleshooting, you can go very far. That being said, I have no bias towards doing it yourself or hiring someone to help. Expanding your fix-it skills can be very gratifying, but ultimately the troubleshooting process must be guided by the factors listed above. Go with what the situation favors.

Second Opinions

I’ve had many ridiculous, super-sized estimates for repair work cross my desk over the years. You may “get what you pay for,” but that doesn’t mean you have to gold-plate somebody’s yacht. A professional may know more than you, but they are not infallible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek clarification. After all, they work for you! For really expensive or important repair decisions, take a note from medicine and consider a second opinion. Or even a third: the conventional wisdom in business is to always get 3 estimates when considering a large purchase. This approach has saved me thousands in repair bills over the years!


  • Header image: Harris & Ewing, photographer. Repairing government trucks at the Treasury procurement section. United States, Washington D.C., ca. 1937. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

1 thought on “Know Your Limits

  1. Had a computer programmer say, IF you can’t resolve/solve issue in 30 minutes, get help. Of course this won’t answer the 1-minute manager.


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