Problem-Solving: The Sleuth, the Scribe, and the Dog
“I am conscious myself of a weight at my heart and a feeling of impending danger—ever present danger, which is the more terrible because I am unable to define it.”
Dr. Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles
A demon canine hidden in the foggy moors seems far more foreboding than a problematic
software mystery. But my decades-old recollection is one of gnawing stress, anxiety and appetite-destroying frustration. A stack overflow error in a network switch ought to be easy enough to debug, correct, and rewrite. Today it would be a nuisance gnat, swatted away and expunged as quickly as discovered. But back then, deciphering clues and unmasking poorly coded scripts seemed to no avail. Commitments to deadlines, customers awaiting updates, were like spine-tingling howls in the wind, threatening marks on our reputations as a crack team of problem solvers.
In the end, the discovery was kind of like the silly and simple riddle -- why is a lost object always found in the last place you look? Worse, it was staring us in the face, until we stepped back and reviewed the holistic configuration – the architectural and system-wide configuration.
Now before the expert scientists eye-roll and wave in disgust, schooling us that our situation was the epitome of poor development and test practices, suffice to say there were other actors at play -- other deceptive connections, and constraints that made the situation more complex than my summary few sentences.
Covering us like a miserable fog, the company culture was infected with more “gotcha” than goodwill. Ulcers were plentiful in that situation. That all-consuming stress also distracted us from solving the mystery. Remember Aesop’s fable application, “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety”? It should be extended to the office – a serene team solves problems faster than an army of screaming captains. And there were more than a few immature, loud, over-zealous leader-wannabes.
Before migrating our updates into the pre-release phase, we simulated capacity stress in a fairly sophisticated, testing environment. Not sophisticated enough.
And we couldn’t pass the gate.
The update failed; the software was deemed “garbage,” literally. Engineers white-boarded in every space in the building, from conference rooms to my office. As manager, I was at wits end, every two hours, picking up the ringing phone whose caller-ID signaled our Vice President.
Like an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, the game was afoot, alright, and we were losing.
A day later, when we backed away from the trees to see the forest, we were stunned by our oversight, disgusted with our blindness. Embarrassed.
The software problem was not in the new release. It lay in the test bed, the simulator that was failing under the bandwidth settings we carelessly punched to prove the new switch’s capability.
We had been looking at the wrong box.
We had hunted dead-end clues.
As Conan Doyle's hero creation, Sherlock Holmes was molded not much differently than any in literature or pop culture. Super heroes have a magnificent and unique skill, but they also have liabilities, foils, and human failings. Watson spoke of his genius partner’s defects, stating that “he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfilment.”
In any problem-solving effort the ability to timely communicate is often the difference between rapid resolution and lonely, dog tail-chasing. For multiple perspectives, we need multiple eyes. In the case of my nightmare switch failure, the breakthrough came when the team broadened its vision, included members from other product areas, avoiding wasteful ego protection.
Holmes’ ego was not only irritating (at least it is to me) but distracting. At times, he finally displayed an empathetic sensibility and came to respect his associate’s value, but wouldn’t it have advanced his problem-solving if he had been less self-satisfied at an earlier time?
As finely tuned as Sherlock’s skills were, in spite of his genius observational capacity, he needed assistance. And it came in minor errand-running characters all the way to his most trusted adviser in his success – his diligent assistant and friend. Watson also delivered something of value to all problem solvers – the narrative, the story that educates and tunes the readers skills to higher levels of acuity.
If you’ve read any of the Holmes’ mysteries, you know that in his office at 221B Baker Street are his bookshelves, containing the facts and findings of his innumerable cases. But let’s stay on track with our “forest for the trees” analogy. Case facts and details cannot be understated in your analytical toolbox. And the specific requirements, assessment items, and instruction sets are what holds your solution value together. The “trees” are the granular details in your skill set. But selling or imparting that skill to create a team dynamic and a holistic problem-solving machine is about the “forest.”
Translating problem-solving approaches and breathing life into cultural constructs occur by way of communicating, painting the picture, so that the whole (the differing eyes and perspectives) are greater than the sum of their parts.
Dr. Watson was more than note-taker. He was writer (the narrator in the novella) who created the storyline and stepwise delivered the lessons. As the various threads untangled and the challenges unfolded, or when they stumbled, hindered by new dilemmas, his narrative gracefully de-layered the case’s complexity.
He presented it to us readers, so that the puzzle pieces began falling into place.
Whether in descriptive techniques of the environment, or emotional outbursts of suspects, we can see the complexity unfold before our eyes.
Can we do that in our company problem-solving scenarios? I don’t suggest donning a cap and pipe in your office, unless it’s Halloween. But understand the value that the scribe offers -- the means to communicate by way of the narrative. Individual notes are lifeless and scattered. The ability to interject problem-solving lessons is the result of seeing the entirety of the scene, and constructing it in terms of a story.
In the Hound of the Baskerville’s, the giant, maligned and mistreated dog was provoked to hunt, using its most basic instinct. The dog is also a pathetic figure, in spite of its ferocity, abused and misused.
The murderous antagonist stole his intended victim’s boots, to set the scent and to drive the animal. And the hungry hound darted through mist-covered hills and fog with one tool of discovery -- its snout.
The canine only knows one method, one means. As more intelligent species, more intelligent most of the time, we have more sophisticated tools and intellectual capacity. We can approach problem-solving from many angles – many... not just by scent-laden terrain.
This simple fact makes me squint when I think of how long we continued to tear apart our network switch code, how we continued to reiterate the same steps of analysis, in the same manner. Why didn’t we change our frame of reference? Why did it take so long for us to recognize the Eureka moment? Like hunting dogs on a trail, we were frenetic and focused on only one scent, only one aspect of a problem whose answer lay in understanding the entirety, seeing the connections, assessing the holistic environment. Without broad perspective, we will miss the surrounding evidence and, like unfortunate, wayward wanderers on the Baskerville moors, fall into the deadly pits of mire.
During the software defect episode, we overlooked the entirety of our architecture. Instead, we focused on one room, on one suspect, with only one track. When we finally balanced our skill in the details with our end-to-end understanding of the chain, we solved the mystery.
Resolution, and the Culture
I’ve spoken often of the misnomer, the mischaracterization of “innovation.” In some arenas it is an adjective to the laboratory, the new department that will create Edison’s luminosity or Bell’s patents, all marketed through Berners-Lee’s worldwide web and then? It will magically culminate in beach chairs and retirement at 30! But that paradigm is a disservice to the miracle of innovation.
Innovation is about culture, not organizational entities. It is more about the way we think than what we build. The innovation culture shall morph into skill bases and best practices; then shall the company advantage explode onto the market.
A culture of innovation is created in every corner of the firm. It is the means to build and to sell; to organize and to strategize; to assess and solve.
In the sorry software episode, we came upon our answer by applying curiosity from all perspectives, by completely tipping the puzzle over.
Holmes’ and Watson’s success was recognizing they needed each other, leveraging each other’s skills and views. Solutions to their cases were considerations of all angles, pursuing suspects’ motivations by evaluating the holistic, not stubbornly following the same trail. And we apply the lessons by way of communications.
Innovation is more than products and technical discovery; it is about problems and the way we grapple with them, overcoming, through diverse and multi-dimensional perspectives.
The company’s challenges in the marketplace, in the ability to optimally organize or to mitigate risks, are not singular, mathematical problems to be solved by a pipe-smoking detective alone with his violin. They are bested by collaboration, by communicating, by embedding curiosity as a cultural value -- the forerunner to innovation.
Problem-solving, a recurring situation among the dynamics of competition, will be faced throughout the life of your company and your career. Whatever dilemma faces the firm, be ready to tip the puzzle on its head.