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Is the darn thing on?

Stephen Balzac | Oct. 21, 2014
Sometimes, solving a problem is as simple as knowing what to look for.

I was having dinner recently at the home of a friend, a doctor with extremely impressive diagnostic skills. Since I spent many years in the high-tech business, as an engineer and as a manager, he said to me, "Steve, my computer backups aren't running. Would you mind taking a quick look?"

As I did so, he explained all the things he'd tried to do to fix his problem: reinstalling the software, trying to do backups at different times, verifying that the cables were all attached, sacrificing a latte, and so on. As he finished, I reached over and turned on the external hard drive.

Problem solved.

Why couldn't my friend see this really simple answer? Because he didn't know what to look for and therefore was distracted by all the things that didn't matter.

A lot of problems come down to the same thing. Here's another example.

One of my jujitsu students once came to me and said, "Sensei, I can't fall anymore."

"What do you mean?" I asked her.

"I used to be able to fall easily, but now every fall just hurts."

Being a sympathetic and considerate sensei, I immediately called over another student and had him throw her. And then throw her again. And again, while I sat and watched. He kept throwing, and she kept falling, until I figured out that she was doing the equivalent of not turning on the external hard drive. Just a slight over-rotation of her body was all it took to transform the fall into a very unpleasant experience. Once I identified the problem, though, it was amazingly simple to correct.

Afterward, I asked her how long she'd been tolerating those painful falls.

"A few weeks," was the reply.

"Why didn't you say something sooner?"

"I figured the problem would go away."

A commendable attitude, if you don't mind unnecessary pain. Sometimes, the best way to see something is to get someone to look from the outside.

I was called in to a large engineering organization to help them figure out why they were stuck. Team members seemed to have no interest in helping one another. Rather, whenever something went wrong or the customers reported a problem, the only thing to get fixed was the blame. People would work long hours and make it obvious they were doing so, yet productivity was remarkably poor considering how long everyone appeared to be working. Meetings were an exercise in one-upmanship. Firing the worst offenders and hiring other people hadn't solved anything.

When I was called in, I asked how long this had been going on.

"I don't know. Months. Maybe a year. It's been getting worse for a long time."

 

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