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How I challenge problems or troubleshoot challenges…

Some History

As a kid, I love to take things apart to see how they worked.  Ok, so this is a radio, you open it up and see things you can adjust.  What happens when…  Ok, maybe I’m not so far from that kid.  I still open things up and make changes just to see the result.  That’s how I learn…  Now, this short blog is about my approach to problem solving.  I’m sure there are others who have written similar articles on similar methods.

imageyup, I used a Swiss Army knife too!

Not my concern.

This is my approach and if it bears any resemblance to anyone living or past…  Well there is one who has past on that served as the nucleus to my process.  That one is JRR Tolkien’s own Bilbo Baggins.

What have I got in my pockets?

When you approach a problem, how do go about it?  Do you look at the challenge and immediately see that you have nothing on had that can address the issue?  If that’s the case, then really there are three paths to choose from:


Ok, says you, what happened to the fourth option of “just buy new”?  If you just buy new, there’s no more problem to solve.  That’s always the golden option with it’s own set of issues.  So really the above becomes:


What’s interesting is that the amount of effort to “Do the minimum” and to come up with a solution is about the same.  Many times, coming up with a solution results in many side benefits.  My thoughts on the matter are:

Coming up with the Solution is FUN

Doing the Minimum is Depressing

Speaking of Fun, are Visio diagrams fun?  I digress…

OK, now it’s on to “What have I got in my pockets?”

That phrase was muttered by Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit when confronted by Gollum in the riddle game.  Bilbo was simply thinking aloud, trying to come up with an appropriate question for the game so Gollum would lead him out.  Gollum jumped to the conclusion that what Bilbo said aloud was the actual question…and the story continued on.  If you want to know what happened, read The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

What Have I Got In My Pockets

You have a problem/challenge and you need to find a solution.  The easiest path would be to just buy new but… there’s no budget.  The “do nothing” path isn’t a solution either because what you need to resolve is either failing or has a specific termination date (don’t worry, there are times you can “do nothing”).

Look around – Solution not the problem – Take Stock

A lot of folks try to solve the problem immediately without stepping back to take stock of their situation.  The key is to ask “What do you really need solved?” 

You need a widget to do something.  You are surrounded by tools that can provide you a widget like substance but they all require some resource.  The quick folks (sometimes this is the only choice you really have) use a widget like substance that only takes care of 10-20% of the problem.


So you got a 10-20% solution in place and that will tide you over until the next iteration. 

You got past the crisis and it was all good right? 

Just like ol’ Bilbo and the Ring of Power.  He turned invisible, escaped Gollum and had a nifty new invisibility ring.  Neat right? 

Like any quick solution, if the long term results aren’t looked at and the wizard of knowledge not consulted, the solution could turn into disaster. 

This is not to say that quick solutions don’t have a place, they do but unless you are at the 80% mark, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Getting Past 20

Now the diagram looks like:


But that’s not quite it either.  It really should look like:


But wait, there is no end!  Even if you do nothing, the odds are pretty high that if the issue came up once, it will show up again.  So, in my problem solving model, the problems never go away… bummer!

The Stage is set

Up to this point, I really haven’t talked too much about how the problem is solved. I’ve addressed identifying the issue and the possible paths to the solution.  Congrats!  Step one is done.  The whole effort up to this point is to gather information on what the problem is, what is the needed result (immediate and long term) and what can be done now to get the process moving.

When doing nothing is the right answer

I love it when folks get so wrapped up in the idea that there is a “problem” and no one stops to look around and see if it is just groupthink.  In this situation, the solution may be to do nothing because that is the right move.  Sure, that the issue came up may lead to some interesting facts about the whole process and MAY identify a different challenge that needs addressing but doing nothing about the “BIG ISSUE” is ok.

Why is only doing 10-20% ok?

Often, challenges are really composed of many different pieces and are lumped together into a challenge forest.  Maybe all you need is a path through the forest and the rest of the trees can be taken out late when more room is needed.  The key is to make sure that the initial items addressed are the immediate blockers.   Using the forest analogy, just taking out some random trees does very little if the goal is to make it to the other side.

But I don’t have a chainsaw!

You may not have the tools to quickly cut down the trees right in front of you.  But maybe, that’s the wrong action anyway.  If you don’t have the perceived right tool, look and see what tools you do have and how they can be applied to the landscape.  In front of you, you see trees but if you look to the side, you see a river flowing through the forest.  Perhaps instead of an axe or a chainsaw, all you need is a boat and you have a lot of boats sitting around.  The river may not be navigable all the way to the final destination but creating a portage around some falls is a lot less effort that plowing through the forest.  Less destructive too.

Wrapping it up – What have I got in my pockets


Don’t assume there’s a problem.  Take a breath or ten and clearly define what the challenge is and what roadblocks are in the way.

Choose immediate actions to take

Can you take the pressure off?  The dam is filling with water too quickly, letting out some water now will keep it from overflowing allow time to build a new dam upstream.

Make sure the goal is the right goal

Remember the forest?  Just because a challenge is stated doesn’t mean that the problem to solve is right in front of you.  It may be off to the side from a different  perspective.

Revisit and revisit and revisit

You’re never done.  Job security?  Maybe but if you are always tuning a process to make it better, it certainly helps keeping you around.

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