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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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rules of Thumb

Jerome Groopman is a physician who frequently writes on medical topics for the New Yorker. His stuff is always fascinating. A few issues back, they ran a piece of his called What's the Problem, where he looked at the heuristics, or rules of thumb, that physicians use when making a diagnosis. And at certain recognizable errors doctors make that lead to incorrect conclusions about a patient's ailment.

Ed Batista, in a post called When Heuristics Go Bad, immediately picked up on how the same kind of analysis Groopman uses can be applied to management decision making. And I thought, this explains so many problems I see in non-profit IT teams, especially those consisting of Accidental Techies.

Where's the buzz?
There are three heuristics that guide me through 90% of the problem solving I need to do. The first is one I learned when I was 12. I call it the "Where's the buzz" rule. If your stereo is buzzing, how do you decide which component is buzzing: the speakers, the cd player, or the amplifier? By removing each component from the mix and seeing if the problem goes away. Try using the same speakers and cd player, but another amplifier. If the buzz goes away, the problem is in the amplifier. This same approach is a great tool to apply to IT problems like why your meetings registration web pages no longer will charge credit cards. I'm always surprised to see people who have never added this trick to their toolbox.

What did you break this time?
Everyone knows that half the time when you try to fix something, you break something else. When I change a light bulb, I scratch up the walls carrying the ladder back to the basement. When I refine the security settings on the firewall, ecommerce goes down on the website. This is not just an annoying fact of life - it is a valuable trick for problem solving. When a new problem emerges, the first rule to apply should be "What has changed?" Odds are the last changes made to your software, to your network, to your pc, have caused the new problem.

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions
The Bard can add a third heuristic to this set. So often, several problems emerge all at once. I've found that when this happens they may well have the same cause, even if this seems really unlikely at first glance. So pick the one that looks easiest to solve, and see if this resolves the other problems as well!

But as Dr Groopman points out - even with a some useful heuristics at your disposal, things can still go wrong. Tomorrow we will look at a few common patterns that defeat effective problem solving.

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