You’re Not Done Until You Tell Someone Else

Microphone
Pick up the mic, crank the volume, and tell the world what happened.
(image: Juan_Alvaro, license: CC BY 2.0)

The final act of any tough troubleshooting exercise should be to communicate the result. I learned this lesson the hard way: after going the extra mile to solve a problem, I’d often see it reappear later because I was silent on the matter. Your heroics won’t provide a lasting benefit to society (or yourself) if the co-worker sitting next to you is unaware of the dragons you’ve slain.

When I think about this problem, my mind throws up an image of George Mallory. Was he the first to summit Everest? Sadly, it doesn’t matter because he didn’t live to either confirm or deny the possibility. While I respect the idea of climbing Everest solely because “it’s there,” if I was going to die trying to be the first, an entry in the record books would be a nice consolation prize. How different our view of history would be if a photo or diary survived, showing that Mallory was the first to the top! Again, communication is vital.

As a troubleshooter, your mountaintop has the fix at the summit. The “getting down,” as Sir Edmund Hilary puts it, is learning from what happened and then communicating these lessons to others. Your metaphorical climb shouldn’t be considered complete without all of these elements. This is just a general principle, so it’s up to you to figure out the best way to feed back your insights to your colleagues, your industry, and the world. We’ve discussed many options for learning from a breakdown like root cause analysis (e.g., 5 Whys) and routine maintenance programs. Likewise, there an equally wide range of options for communicating the results of a fix-it victory (defeats, too): checklists, troubleshooting trees, manuals, service bulletins, incident reports, on-line discussion forums, meetings with your colleagues, etc.

It’s a tragedy to possess hard-won knowledge and not take that last step to disseminate it to others. Who could be saved by what you know? That’s the spirit in which I wrote this book, it’s not enough for me to be good at fixing things—I want to live in a world filled with amazing troubleshooters.

Toot Your Own Horn Once In A While Or Be Taken For Granted

In your role as a troubleshooter, you’re often responsible for maintaining the “invisible infrastructure” of people’s daily lives. These are the things that people take for granted until they break down: their car, Internet connection, electricity in the wall socket, hot water, etc. The problem with things that people take for granted is they’re not always appreciated like they should be. In “Zen And The Art Of Routine Maintenance,” I related the ancient parable of the 3 physicians who were brothers. I told you to be like the eldest who “sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.” I’ll add a qualification to that: be like that eldest brother, but also be your own PR agency and make sure that your name does get around. You won’t keep your job if you don’t!

As CTO, I managed the systems group at Discovery Mining. This department maintained the infrastructure for the company: the servers that ran the web site, the phone system that the salespeople used to call clients, the printers that the project managers used to print their reports. And so on. Exactly the kind of stuff that easily falls into the “taken for granted” category. At first, when presenting to the company during our weekly engineering meeting, I would focus on recent incidents and secondarily on progress reports for our current projects. This seemed reasonable because “if it bleeds, it leads,” just like the 5 o’clock news, right?

It took a while, but eventually I realized that the systems team and I weren’t getting much credit for everything that went right. Sure, the duty of maintaining all those servers, computer networks, phones, and printers was in our job description, but that doesn’t mean it should go unappreciated. Also, focusing just on incidents made it seem like there was more chaos and instability in our infrastructure than there really was. It was likely the same phenomenon as the “Mean World Syndrome”: a diet of sensational news with a large helping of violent crime can make you believe your surroundings are more dangerous than the statistics would indicate. By fixating people’s attention on just the bad things, I had become the tabloid news of the company.

Therefore, I decided to change course and try a different approach. On a regular basis, I started to include an overview of all the the things that had gone right during our weekly meetings. Basically, periodic reminders of all those things that people relied on, but might take for granted. During the latter part of my tenure, after our data collection program was bearing fruit, I was able to show these “hidden successes” graphically. I’d include things like:

  • “Did you know? The website was up 100% last month.”
  • “Our Internet connection has plenty of spare bandwidth. I hope you’ve been enjoying your YouTube and FaceBook time.”
  • “Isn’t it nice that the printers worked while you were preparing for that big presentation?”
  • “Look at all that extra disk storage we anticipated you’d need. Now we’re able to make good on that big contract that the sales team just closed.”

Learn Then Tell

My parting advice is to go forth and learn from your failures. When you have insights to share, spread the news far and wide.

After that, you’re done.

And I am too.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Tao Te Ching, Verse 9

References

  • Lao Tzu and Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

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