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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Covert Operations

As technology assistance providers, my company is often called upon to solve our users' problems. And I think many of you who are readers of this blog are in the same situation. Whether you are a consultant working with your clients, a non-profit techy working with your fellow staff members, or an ISV working with users, folks come to you all day long with their problems.

How do we solve these problems? We saw in March how a lot of writers have focused on the need to calm down, to slow down and clarify the issue, as a first step towards a solution. But this can be hard to do. Why? Because problems often have an overt and a covert side. The overt problem is the simple technical statement of the problem as it is brought to you.
"I'm running out of disk space on my server. What can I delete?"
But your user will very often have a covert problem as well. Maybe its something like
"Our network is acting up again, and I'm on the line. I get blamed for all these network problems, but I am not authorized to delete anyone's Office files. But I've got to fix this before my boss gets on my case! Maybe there are database files I can kill."
Another user might have a different covert problem in the same situation:
"If I can't store my Word documents, I'll be late getting this report done for tonight's board meeting. How will I explain that?"
The covert problem is generally some form of "Oh-oh, I'm in big trouble now!" It's a feeling we've known since we were kids. But when it is not acknowledged as a problem to solve, we get confused and think the overt problem is urgent. If we can help our users and clients get rid of the sense that they are personally in deep doo-doo, suddenly we have enough time to approach the overt problem systematically. It involves addressing this doo-doo factor directly, by offering to make sure that our user's personal worries get resolved first. "Here's a laptop to use while I resolve the network problems" or "Let me write a memo to your director explaining how I think this should be solved". Sometimes even a simple "Do you mind if I copy your boss on this response so he understands why this will take some time" will go a long way.

Calming down our users so they give us the space to solve their problems is a lot easier once we recognize the full scope of their problem and help them solve it as it applies to them most personally.
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