Troubleshooting is about making something work again; most of the time, no one will care how you make it work again! People use machines to accomplish their goals, not for their own sake. They are a means to an end: if the purpose a machine served can be met some other way, no one will mourn a breakdown.

Recognizing this critical distinction between machines and the goals they advance leads to the following insight: because the outcome is the most important thing, any reasonable route that gets you there should be considered. That includes totally bypassing a broken system! When you’re freed to take any number of paths to the promised land, creativity becomes a potent virtue of the troubleshooter.

Using your creativity to make a situation better is the difference between someone who merely “fixes things” and a bona fide Troubleshooter. Repair, swap, replace, reroute, cannibalize, triage, find a workaround, or do nothing: creative problem-solvers open themselves to the whole universe of possibilities.

Choosing Between Mrs. Right And Mrs. Right Now

When a machine breaks, the need it served will still persist–that’s the impetus behind every repair. However, the existence of this unfulfilled need is why you must troubleshoot the whole situation. In addition to searching for a fix, you should also look for ways to provide temporary relief to those affected by a machine failure. You may need to jury-rig something to get that last load delivered or that important email sent, until a long-term solution can be found.

Balancing the needs of the present with the future is its own art because providing temporary relief can conflict with efforts to find a long-term solution. There’s usually not just a single fix to consider, but rather a whole spectrum ranging from the temporary to the optimal (and often expensive). The finite resources needed to make a repair (people, tools, spare parts, etc.) may only allow you to pursue one avenue at a time. If you intend to quickly put a machine back into service with a temporary fix, clearly it won’t be available for a more extensive repair that would require downtime. Another danger is that temporary hacks can become de facto, permanent fixes if you’re not vigilant and push to make long-term repairs a priority.

You could write an entire book about these competing considerations—in fact, this book—so we won’t go over what has already been covered. The takeaway is that creativity is the supreme virtue when managing situations where a malfunction has left someone stranded. If you unleash that creative genius inside, you can often find a way to provide both temporary relief and long-term reliability.

So many paths to take…
(image: Susan Yin / Unsplash)

The Right Question

So, you need to be creative…but is it possible to learn to be more creative? I certainly can’t teach you in the short space of this piece, and I’m not even sure where I would begin. Many engineer-types draw creative inspiration from other aspects of their lives, from artistic hobbies like music, photography, painting, dancing, improv, theater, etc. These activities can cross-pollinate to your problem-solving, so consider those avenues. Others find that it’s hard to access their creative side because of a cluttered or “noisy” mind. In order to give yourself the space to actually be creative, you may need to first gain control of your runaway thoughts. On that front, check out the new-fangled inventions of exercise and meditation.

The above are all worthy pursuits that can enrich your life and boost your creativity. However, I don’t want you to think you need to embark on some radical self-improvement program just to inject a little more imagination into your problem-solving. It’s likely you already have plenty of clever ideas and just need to remind yourself of the distinction between machines and the purposes they fulfill. Lastly, asking this question before you start troubleshooting will get your creative juices flowing:

“What exactly does this machine do for us?”

This query will focus your mind on the end goal—the need a machine was serving. Also, be sure to ask those affected by a breakdown how they would manage if a machine took a long time to be repaired: the “victims” will often have the best ideas for workarounds!

“Do you mind if I try out some new techniques while we’re falling to our deaths and you’re strapped to my belly?”
(image: Morgan Sherwood / CC BY 2.0)

Exercise That Muscle

In those high-pressure situations where creativity would be useful, you might not be able to generate good ideas because of the stress involved. Or, maybe the troubleshooting process in your field is rigidly proscribed because of legal, safety, or quality reasons. Some professions (police, firefighters, pilots, doctors, etc.) have well-defined procedures and require extensive training because stress impairs cognitive functions. I’m not sure I want my brain surgeon or skydiving instructor to “get creative” without first testing their whacky new theories in a safe and controlled environment (or on themselves). An idea might look good at first glance, but after critical examination it may fall apart. You’d like to know this before it really counts.

High-stakes troubleshooting will still benefit from your creative input, but in a more thoughtful, after-the-fact type of manner. Root cause analysis (RCA), when done post-crisis, is a great way to thoroughly review an incident and generate ideas for future improvements. At a conference table, far removed in space and time from the chaos of a meltdown, you can feel free to be as creative as you want. Plus, your imaginative new ideas will benefit from the peer review of such a setting. There’s no substitute for taking your time: some refinements will need the rigor of the scientific method (making a hypothesis, designing an experiment, collecting data, etc.) to know whether they are better than your current practices. Finally, the learning that happens as a result of your RCA process will lead to the kind of deep proficiency that makes spontaneous creativity possible. If you’ve ever seen a true expert come up with amazing things on-the-spot, it’s usually a result of all the experience and learning that came before.


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