Try and Then Ask

Monday, October 07, 2013

Over the weekend, I ran into some interesting advice on tackling very difficult problems at work. Matt Ringel boils his advice down to the following easily-remembered aphorism: "You must try, and then you must ask." Ringel then elaborates, giving us a more detailed description of what he advises and his explanation of why it works.

The advice seems quite compatible with "Thinking on Paper" and related techniques advocated by Jean Moroney of Thinking Directions. In fact, it may be better to say that it incorporates Thinking on Paper, while taking advantage of the brainpower of coworkers in such a way as to improve collaboration. This compatibility is illustrated by Ringel's explanation of what he means by "try", which should take a solid fifteen minutes:

During those 15 minutes, you must document everything you're doing so that you can tell someone else. So, what does "look at the problem one more time" mean? It means taking notes. Lots of them. I'm a big fan of using a paper notebook with an excruciatingly fine-point pen, because I don't need to move windows out of the way to keep writing in it, and I can fit a lot of words on a single page. Use what you like, but keep writing. Write down all the steps, all the assumptions, everything you tried, and anything you can do to reproduce the problem. More likely than not, you've now probably figured out at least one other way to solve the problem, just by getting it out of your head and onto paper. [emphasis in original]
Ringel's advice is likely to yield good results quickly and set a positive tone for future collaboration for several reasons, including this:
[Y]our colleagues will know that if you come over to ask for help, you'll already have taken time to look it over and documented your findings so they can help you figure out the problem faster or point you in the right direction. It's possible you'll end up Rubber Duck Debugging the problem, and the act of talking through the problem will help you solve it. [link and emphasis in original]
The technique also fosters respect for the value of one's own time as well as that of one's employer.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of programmer help forums, like StackOverflow. Questions that do not show some background work, are not looked upon kindly. They are more likely to get counter questions like "What have you tried?" than to get a good answer.

Gus Van Horn said...

Understandable. In such forums, there is no added annoyance of wondering whether one is helping someone who just won't pull his own weight: Such questions can be irritating because they leave someone with experience no starting point. Pity the Help Desk people who have to drag this out of their customers, who have been known to blow time due to such things as not having power.