The Art of Troubleshooting

May 18, 2010

By definition, troubleshooting is the process of diagnosing the source of a problem. We might troubleshoot some problems ourselves, but when we need help, we turn to those who have more skills or knowledge than us — customer service representatives, for example, or tech support — in order to assist us troubleshoot that problem.

But having the right knowledge is only part of the reason we’d turn to someone for troubleshooting help. Given a choice, we would prefer those who also have the right attitude. We value those who have the answers, but we also value those who don’t make us feel bad for asking for help in the first place. Often, by the time we ask for help, we’ve reached our wits’ end and a good troubleshooter can handle not only our problem, but also our frustration.

This is why troubleshooting isn’t simply about having the knowledge or the skills to fix that initial problem. Without addressing both the logistics of that problem and the emotional aftermath, troubleshooting can become just more trouble.

Addressing the Problem

Troubleshooting relies on moving carefully and logically to identify and fix a problem. It’s a process that starts on a general level of “what’s the trouble” and then moves to diagnose the specific cause and to repair it. In order to troubleshoot, it is necessary to move through this process methodically, not to rush to judgment or diagnosis.

  1. Listen: When someone needs help, it’s important they get to explain their problem fully: what and how things went wrong, and what they may have done to try to fix things. Listen carefully (take notes), but then interview, ask questions; solicit as much information as possible.
  2. Diagnose: Having gathered information about the problem, the next step is to isolate and identify the problem. Move step-by-step, systematically. It can be useful to divide the problem into small segments — i.e. if say a printer isn’t working first break the problem in two: is the problem with the printer or with the computer. Eliminate areas that are not causing the problem. Research when necessary.
  3. Fix. Once identified, resolve the problem. Be sure to test to make sure the correct solution has been found.
  4. Cleanup: Sometimes in identifying and even in fixing a problem, a cascade of other issues arise. Make sure that all problems are fixed and all questions are answered – to everyone’s satisfaction.

Addressing the Frustration

To be adept at problem-solving, however, requires more than just simply finding an answer. To really be proficient at troubleshooting requires more than an act. It’s an art.

But how do we elevate troubleshooting beyond simply a demonstration of the capacity for knowledge or skills? How do we master the art of troubleshooting?

When we ask for help:

  • Identify: We’d like to be spoken to in our terms, not theirs. We don’t want to be patronized. Without assumptions or judgment, we’d like the person we turn to for help to step outside their own perspectives and identify with ours. We don’t want to be thought of simply as “a customer” or “a user” or “a problem.” We’d like the person we ask for help to put themselves in our shoes, so they can grasp not just what went wrong, but what we want want and what we need to accomplish – and why help is so important.
  • Humanize: We don’t want to talk to a robot. We want logic, methodology, and precision, but we want to talk to a human. We know when we’re getting automatic and automated answers, even when we’re talking to a “real” person. Let us tell the story as it happened, rather than force us to follow a pre-ordained script or fit into a predetermined “problem” category. Extract information via conversation, not interrogation. Be inquisitive, but be authentic.
  • Responsibility: It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” But rather than have that be the end of the troubleshooting, turn it into another step towards resolution. Further inquiry should be undertaken in the service of finding the person who can troubleshoot further. A problem deflected is not a problem solved.

Yes, troubleshooting is about finding the answer. But when we strive to answer (and to answer better), we need to recognize that the right answer (and the better answer) is about more than being right. It’s about resolving the problem and the frustration around the problem. To do so requires that we think of troubleshooting as an art, not just a skill-set or knowledge base.