Stop Asking “What Will Work?”

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IT professionals are charged with solving complex technical problems. For this purpose our organizations send us to training and industry conferences (well, they should send us to training and conferences but not all do), so that we can expand our knowledge and skill sets. After attending these training sessions and conferences we are often deemed “experts” in that particular area of technology, because upon our return we can answer management’s favorite question:

“What will work?”

Now let’s ignore the obvious problem that comes from someone being declared an expert after a mere week or two of focused learning, and instead focus on the behavior that this approach encourages amongst IT professionals. We are taught and encouraged by this process to adopt the following methodology:

  1. Upon learning about a problem we ask “What will work?” in order to find a quick resolution to the problem.
  2. Since we are supposedly “experts” we turn to what we know. We then usually “solve” the problem by buying a bigger and faster version of the solution that we are already comfortable with, because that “will work”.
  3. If what we are comfortable with is not going to solve the problem we request to attend more training or an industry conference to become an “expert” in what we think will solve the problem.
  4. Usually the training and conferences that we request to attend are just more specialized programs going into greater detail on the solutions that we are already comfortable with. We introduce ourselves to the key speakers and instructors, describe our organization’s problem and ask “What will work?”
  5. These instructors and key speakers tell us how they would solve our problem using solutions that they are comfortable with, which are just the latest versions of the solutions that we are already comfortable with.
  6. Eventually we design an incredibly complex solution that uses only components from the solution that we are already comfortable with. Maybe some third-party components are acquired, but these third-party components are always blessed by the manufacturer of the solution that we are comfortable with. These components are what the manufacturer has promised us will “work”.
  7. What is supposed to “work” does not actually work, or if it does work it is such a cumbersome solution it is just as much a problem as it is a solution, and we return to step #1.

I do not believe that this cycle is due to the quality of training that IT professionals receive, nor does it have anything to with the usefulness of the conferences that we attend. Good training is always beneficial, and conferences make us better IT professionals when we attend them to expand our understanding of both technology and business.

No, the problem is that we are asking the wrong question at the beginning of the process. We keep asking “What will work?”

What we should be asking is “Why is this a problem?”

Identifying a problem is easy, but understanding a problem is difficult. If your car will not start you can easily identify the problem. You activate the ignition and instead of the engine starting it does nothing. You then might jump into the “What will work?” mentality:

  1. Is there enough fuel in the car?
  2. Is the battery dead?
  3. If I twist the key or push the “Start” button harder will the car suddenly start due to my intense willpower? (This approach is used by the same people who push the elevator button more than once to make it arrive faster. You know who you are.)
  4. I have no idea what is wrong, so I am calling a tow truck.

What if the approach we took started with asking “Why is this a problem?” We might then reach a completely different solution to the problem:

  1. I need my car to get to the store.
  2. I need to get to the store and back within one hour before my guests arrive.
  3. The store is only 15 minutes away if I walk there.
  4. I can walk to the store, shop, and get back home in under one hour.

Now the car still has to be repaired, but by asking “Why is this a problem?” we solved the immediate need by realizing that there are other solutions available to us. We opened our creative minds to understanding the situation from outside of our comfort zone (i.e., “I use my car to drive to the store.”). This prevented us from putting on those blinders that asking “What will work?” encourages.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever seen someone have problems with their remote control slowly creep closer and closer to his or her television hoping that somehow the remote control will magically work again because of the proximity? I have seen people be within arms reach of the power button frantically tapping on the remote control shouting “The television won’t turn on!”

Those people are not stupid. They are just frustrated because what they are comfortable with has failed to work. They keep asking “What will make this remote control work?” instead of “Why is the failure of the remote control to work a problem?”

IT professionals become frustrated as well when difficult problems arise. That frustration makes it easy for us to fall back into our comfort zones and focus on how we can make what we know work. I am not suggesting that you simply discard that which you know, but you should ask yourself “Why is this a problem?” first before assuming that the technology that you are comfortable with will provide the solution. You will save yourself time and your organization money by going beyond identifying a problem to understanding the problem. Asking “Why is this a problem?” is the first step of that approach.

Plus people will think you are genius when you “figure out” how to turn on their televisions without the remote control. 🙂

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