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Are You Working on the Right Problem?

A matter of prioritization and recognizing the difference between a problem and its symptoms

How often do IT technicians spend time and resources resolving issues for their customers only to find that the issue simply recurs, causing more downtime and frustration for the business?

There is a simple reason why this happens. It is human nature to address the thing that is causing the immediate pain and remove it. But in many cases what you are removing is the symptom, not the underlying problem. It is very easy to ease the pain from a blister by putting on a Band-Aid, but if you don’t fix the underlying cause of ill-fitting shoes, then the next time you wear them, the blister will be back, it will probably develop faster and be more painful.

Jumping to conclusions

Sometimes IT technicians jump to conclusions about what the cause may be. They have seen it before and try a fix only to find that it doesn’t work. Knowledge and experience are important but it can get in the way of solving problems if you don’t have all the facts.

Another thing that happens far too often is that we pick a problem to work on and, once it is resolved, you discover that nobody really cared about it in the first place. Maybe the issue looked like something you could really get your teeth into, perhaps it intrigued you, maybe it was something that you were pretty sure you knew the answer to and wanted to prove yourself right.

The issue here is, that if you don’t check just what impact any particular technical issue is having on the business, you can end up wasting precious time and resources solving problems that just don’t matter

Remember the customer

There are a number of reasons that this happens in the IT world. People working in IT are generally very smart people, but they tend to focus on what they know best and have some control over, and that is the technical aspect. Too often you can sit in IT meetings discussing major issues and nobody will mention the customer and the effect this is having on them. This is something that really has to change.

Understanding who the customer is can be a critical component of making sure that you are working on the right problem. It is important to understand what business you are in, and to build bridges of communication between people working in IT and the people who are consuming IT services to serve their customers. When this relationship is open and information is free-flowing in both directions, you will have the capability you need to really assess the priority of the technical problems you are dealing with.

With this work done you can work on the issues that are really going to make a difference to the bottom line of the business you are a part of.

Identify the issue

When there is a problem that needs resolving, it can be very easy to jump in, boots and all, and fix the thing that is hurting.  That is what incident management is all about, getting the customer back to work as quickly as possible. But there is a very good chance that doing this is just going to be a temporary measure. This is when it is critical to sit down and spend some time working out where you need to look for the technical cause of the incident.

Understanding this is sometimes 80% of the work you will need to do, if you can clearly identify exactly where the issue is occurring and what is happening that should not be happening, then you are probably very close to identifying the cause.

Precision is your friend in this exercise, starting your problem analysis at too high a level means that you will be wasting a lot of time looking at things that are not going to make a difference to the outcome.

Let’s come back to the troublesome blister. If the complaint received was “I have a sore foot” then we are going to waste time considering all the things that could possibly cause a sore foot – a sprain, a broken bone, an ingrown toenail, a bunion?

Asking the right questions will guide us to the place we need to concentrate, and in this case we will end up with the problematic object being the shoe, not the foot at all. Had we worked on the painful foot, we would be solving the symptom, not the problem.

It is all common sense

This all seems like common sense, but so often common sense is overlooked as we head off in a direction that, ultimately, might be a dead end passage. Take the time at the beginning to make sure you have your priorities right and to determine the correct point to start your problem solving.

If you get these two simple things right you will really be contributing to the success of the business you are a part of.


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