The Two Sides of the Problem Coin

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IT professionals are in the business of solving problems. If a network is too slow we make it faster. If an application is unreliable we increase its stability. These are the types of technical challenges that our industry has become very proficient at dealing with.

Problems are not merely technical in nature though. If everyone agrees that the network is fine as it is then everyone will see no reason to make the network faster. If the occasional application crash occurs but the users do not care about it the users will see no reason to increase the application’s stability. How a situation is perceived is just as important as the technical details that define what a problem is.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that the IT industry has become very proficient at dealing with the technical aspects of a problem. Our industry is probably too good at recognizing the technical details behind a problem. IT professionals need to balance those technical skills with the ability to empathize with how others perceive a situation.

For example, if a potential buyer walks into a car dealership looking to buy a new sports car the dealer will show that buyer the cars that are in stock. The dealer shows the buyer a blue sports car with all of the features and performance capabilities that the buyer wants. The purely technical details of the buyer’s request have all been matched.

The problem is that the buyer does not want the car in blue. The buyer wants the car in red.

There is no technical problem with the car. Whether the car is blue or red will not impact how it performs or what features it comes with. The buyer, and thus the dealer, still have a problem though. You might think that the car being blue is what the problem is, but that is not the case at all. The problem is how the buyer perceives the blue car.

The easy approach here is for the dealer to say “We’ll order the same model in red for you.”

What if it takes two weeks for the red car to be delivered and the buyer does not want to wait that long? Approaching the car being blue as a technical problem may cost the dealer the sale, and it does not solve the buyer’s problem.

What the dealer needs to do is ask the client “I want to make sure that you are happy, so why is blue the wrong color for you?”

Now the dealer is addressing the real problem. The car being blue is a technical detail. There is nothing wrong with the car being blue. The buyer’s perception of the blue car is what needs to be addressed.

If the buyer explains that he has always dreamed of owning a bright red sports car, now the dealer can explain that the same model can be ordered in red. The dealer can also ask the buyer if there are any additional details that the buyer wants on his red sports car that the buyer has always dreamed about having. If the buyer is willing to work with the dealer, then a custom order can be placed to ensure that the buyer’s dream car is delivered to the dealership. Now the buyer will gladly wait for the same model of car in red to be delivered to the dealership, because the dealer is selling the buyer not just a red car but the buyer’s red dream car!

Or perhaps the buyer explains that he does not want his car to look like everyone else’s who buys the same model. The buyer wants his car to be unique, and the buyer believes that red is a unique color for this particular model of car. The dealer can respond by telling the customer that the reason he has no red cars in stock is because that is the most commonly requested color for that particular model. This approach might cause the buyer to change his perception of the blue car altogether, and the dealer may have just made a sale.

It is easy for IT professionals to look at our client’s problems as merely technical ones, but that is just not good enough for today’s IT needs. IT professionals need to dig deeper, and we have to understand what the customer is perceiving her problems to be. The client might have a problem or need that we have overlooked in our technical analysis of the situation, or perhaps the client is misinformed and new information will cause the client’s perception of the situation to change. If an IT professional accurately knows how the customer perceives the problem, then that IT professional can design the right technical solution for the customer.

IT is not just a science, but an art that is constantly evolving. Do not let the technical details of a situation obfuscate your perception of what needs to be done. Much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what makes an IT solution “correct” comes from the perceptions of your end-users. See the situation as your end-users see it before you do any technical work, and you will see success in your IT career.

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