How to solve a problem

-Inspired by one year of online meetings-

When a problem occurs, say for example you are in an online meeting and the other participants cannot hear you, you should follow these steps in your attempt to solve the problem.

1.) Try to identify the problem — fix it with the existing elements.

In our example: Is the microphone connected? Did you accidentally mute yourself? Is your microphone volume turned up? etc

The time you should spend on identifying the problem before moving on to 2.) is related to your knowledge about the system you are using: If you are using a brand new headset and are working with a client’s videoconference platform that you never worked with before and your background is in contemporary dance, maybe don’t spend too much time on this step. If, on the other hand, you used to work as a sound engineer and you also know that the microphone you are using had a loose cable last week, spending some time on identifying the problem might indeed bring you closer to a solution.

But there is a pitfall: Too much knowledge can tip you over the critical-confidence-threshold and you’ll end up spending too much time on this first step. When either your identity gets entangled with successfully identifying the problem (“A good sound engineer should be able to fix this simple sound issue”) or when you know the system so well that you get more interested in identifying the problem than actually finding a solution, you might cross the critical-confidence-threshold. If you happily swipe the sweat off your forehead after you finally found the unchecked checkbox on the last page of some “Advanced settings” menu, you pop back into the meeting with a successful smile on your face and realize that everyone has already left because 45 minutes have passed — then you clearly crossed the threshold.

2.) Try to identify alternatives — fix it with new elements.

In case Step 1.) did not solve your problem and you were lacking knowledge, tools or patience to fix it with the existing elements, you should try to replace some elements: Find a new microphone, use another laptop, move to a different meeting room, etc. Since this step bears the risk of creating new problems, it should not be the first action to take when you try to solve a problem. Plus, any insights from the previous step will come in handy, e.g. if you were able to narrow the problem down to the audio cable, then replacing this element will most likely solve your problem.

3.) Accept your limitations — redefine your success criteria.

Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Win some, lose some. Or look at that motivating quote on top of this article… It wasn’t meant to happen today, but maybe you found some new appreciation for our old analogue world, where we used to sit together in a poorly ventilated meeting room. Maybe you learned something useful about Zoom’s audio settings or some really interesting, hardly known fact about the Bluetooth 4.1 HSP protocol. And if you’re honest, you didn’t really want to give that talk anyway. Now you just won half an hour to get away from the screen and go out for a walk. Hooray.

In summary: Try to not to get stuck on identifying the problem, but don’t move on to alternatives unless you have at least briefly considered what the actual problem might be.

By the way, these principles apply equally for problems with your business model, your dinner, or your romantic relationships.

Interested in all ways to understand this world. Looking for questions, not answers. Curious about the human and the digital. — bjornb@mailbox.org