The last two issues of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, documenting Corporationally Incorrect Technology, were loads of fun to write, attracted talented and authoritative guest authors, and elicited a strong positive response from you, the reader. Now it's time to get back to the basics: Troubleshooting Process: How to talk about it.
The way each of us portrays Troubleshooting Process will determine whether it prevails or becomes just another "program of the month". For reasons I'll discuss in the next two issues, I think we'll prevail.
How do we talk about it to trainees? How about to those who authorize us to train? How do we reconcile the differences between the two groups and minimize any conflicts of interest? What are the special challenges talking to each group? How do we improve our communications skills?
I'm much busier these days, so instead of writing an 11+ article magazine covering the topic, I'll split it in two. This June issue will be part 1, while July will be part 2.
So kick back, relax, and read this issue. And remember, this magazine belongs to us Troubleshooters. And victory is just over the next hill!
I meet someone -- a potential business contact. Call him "Bill".
Bill: "So Steve, what do you do?"
Steve: "I teach a ten step Troubleshooting Process."
Bill: "Troubleshooting what?"
Bill (backing away as if I'm pushing all my possessions around in a shopping cart and haven't showered in a week): "Oh, uh, err, that's nice. Please excuse me, I see Fred over there, and I need to ask him a few questions."
If this sounds familiar, I've been having a little more success with this:
Bill: "So Steve, what do you do?"
Steve: "I teach a ten step Troubleshooting Process.
Bill: "Troubleshooting what?"
Bill, all systems needing repair have several things in common: 1) They obey the law of cause and effect, 2) They have hundreds or thousands of components, 3) To fix the problem you need to find the root cause defective component, and 4) The only practical way to find the bad component is with process of elimination. My ten step process maximizes the power of elimination and minimizes the time to solution. It works on anything. Today's systems, with their growing complexity and shrinking time to market, are all but impossible for one person to master. That's why this process is such an asset.
Try it. Let me know how it works for you.
When we step in front of a group to train the group on a new piece of equipment or software, the attendees perceive two choices: 1) Learn what we are offering, or 2) Fail in their jobs.
When we step in front of a group to train the group on troubleshooting process, the attendees perceive two choices: 1) Learn what we are offering, or 2) Continue using the same troubleshooting methods they've used successfully since they replaced their dad's air filter at the age of 12.
Unless we change perception 2, we can't act as a catalyst for improvement. But how do we say there's room for improvement without implying they're "doing it wrong". Since many people's self-esteem is directly hooked to their "troubleshooting ability", outright implying that their Troubleshooting Process needs work is likely to turn them hostile, preventing any information exchange.
So what to do? I start by explaining some myths that could cause disbelief, then I clear any fear of this being just another "program of the month".
Doesn't this seem like common sense? OF COURSE you must be an expert on the system to be a good Troubleshooter. Or must you?
In fact, troubleshooting productivity is like a pipeline with several bottlenecks:
The average technical person has been trained to death on his or her technology. He or she has been provided with wonderful tools. And their training on Troubleshooting Process? Well, er, um, I mean, well, didn't they learn it in high school? Or college?
In fact, few Troubleshooters have been trained in Troubleshooting Process. What they know they learned on their own, and in most cases it's nowhere near as complete as their systems or tools knowledge. This explains the phenomenon where engineers can't troubleshoot. Where a Troubleshooter is sent to advanced courses on the machine, system or tools, and no appreciable performance gain is realized.
It means the first course a Troubleshooter should be sent to is Troubleshooting Process. With that bottleneck cleared, the systems and tools courses will finally do some real good.
The "systems expert" myth costs industry billions as people are sent to the wrong courses with no improvement. It costs Troubleshooters increased job stress and a decreased paycheck.
This myth seductivity comes from the fact that the statement is absolutely true. But it answers the wrong question. The question isn't "can I troubleshoot?", or even "can I troubleshoot well?". The questions are:
This myth causes big damage by imposing an artificial limit on Troubleshooters' productivity. Change requires awareness.
It was perfect. Warm sun, cool breeze, green trees and a smooth path. My skate wheels whooshed softly as I contemplated a future brighter than this pretty spring day. My new book, "Troubleshooting: Tools, Tips and Techniques" was finally finished, and I was self-publishing it. With the right marketing and sales strategy, it would lead to Troubleshooting classes, first taught by me, then by others. I would trade my computer programmer career for Troubleshooting training. Within a few years all the Fortune 500 companies would be my customers.
Wait til I told the Wall Street Journal how wrong my Business 101 course had been when the instructor told us small companies can't make markets -- they must ride the big companies coattails. Skating down the bridge and around the Woodley curve, with the hot sun and the cool breeze, dreaming of success and fame, it was perfect.
Well, almost perfect. There was one slight problem. I was having trouble selling it. Specifically, talking to customers. Oh, sure, I could talk to friends about my book and course til the cows came home. But with a potential customer for the book or the course, I became tongue tied or said the wrong thing. No sale.
But that was just a little sales-glitch I'd have to fix. No big deal. The day continued, the sun got redder, I skated on in bliss.
The workmen's saws and hammers broke my train of thought. Looking up from the program I was writing, I once again saw my office was a mass of patches, holes and unfixed cracks. The 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake (which was really centered in Reseda) almost destroyed our building on January 17, 1994. The epicenter was six blocks away.
I'd spent the next three months getting our lives together, moving things around for the workmen, negotiating with the landlord, repairing smashed equipment, putting back the voluminous mess vomited out of our cabinets and shelves. Not much time for work.
Three months without work isn't so bad -- every contract programmer encounters it. But I'd spent most of 1993 fighting with our prepaid health plan to give my wife usual and customary prenatal care for the triplets we were expecting, then fighting with them again to give adequate care to our premature children, and then helping care for three premature babies, with different four times a day medicine schedules and different feeding schedules. Not much time for work.
By April 1994 I had a tough decision to make. I hadn't had a programming contract in a year. The Troubleshooting courses and books had brought in some income, but not enough to live on. We were running out of money.
I decided to drop the Troubleshooting business and put all my energy into my proven revenue source -- computer programming. Late April brought a programming contract and the money was once again flowing in. Happy days were here again. Almost.
If you've ever given up a life's dream, you understand. Programming is loads of fun, it's lucrative, and I'm really good at it. But it's not what I was meant to be.
There are millions of computer programmers. Many are good -- quite a few better than me. But in 1994, I knew of NOBODY else capable of teaching Troubleshooting Process. I had studied it for fifteen years. Three years of my life and soul had gone into marketing it.
From 1990 through 1993, I'd spoken on Troubleshooting at every meeting whose agenda would allow it. Some meetings went well, some didn't. At a PC user group the host didn't like me and shut off my microphone (the attendees apparently didn't share his disdain, and told me so). Conversely, there was a standing ovation at the American Society for Quality Control. When I talked there was just so much variation...
Then there was my talk on "troubleshooting your career" at Forty Plus. Forty Plus is a wonderful organization helping older workers overcome job discrimination. Forty Plus is a tough audience because they're under such intense time pressure. Every hour attending a seminar is an hour not making phone calls or going on interviews. You'd better be good.
And I was. Several audience members complemented me. And one had a little constructive criticism:
"You know Steve, you have a really good presentation, but you move around too much. It's distracting. Steve, have you ever considered joining Toastmasters?"
I'd never heard of Toastmasters, and asked about it. She told me it's this place where you can go to practice giving speeches. Nobody laughs at you. Nobody criticizes you -- they just evaluate your speech and tell you how to do better next time. She implied it would be VERY helpful to my Troubleshooting Process career.
It seemed like an insult. How dare she imply I'm not a good speaker. At least I had the guts to get up there and do it. To terminate the discussion pleasantly I told her I'd think about it.
And as the years went by, with bottleneck analysis increasingly pointing to an inadequacy in speaking as the bottleneck to success, I thought of Toastmasters often. But wouldn't it be intimidating to go in there and have others evaluate me? Wouldn't it be intimidating to walk in there with a bunch of successful people? And wouldn't it cost a fortune. And. And. And -- well, what if they were some kind of cult.
Toastmasters was filed away in the back of my mind as one of those "it's there if worst comes to worst and you really need it" plans.
I hadn't entered the room yet. I could still turn back. What if they made me get up and speak? What if I was the one guy they laughed at? I could still sneak out and nobody would be the wiser.
No I couldn't. Worst had come to worst and I really needed Toastmasters. My Troubleshooting Process business was showing real signs of profitability. But the business schools told the truth -- small businesses don't make their own market, they ride the coattails of big businesses. Well, most small businesses. But there are always those few way outside of the bell curve. And if you want to succeed way outside the bell curve, you'd darn well better talk way outside the bell curve. I took a deep breath and walked in the door.
Before I tell you what happened at the Toastmasters meeting, let's talk about the series of lucky breaks that got me back into the Troubleshooting Process business after dropping out of it in 1994.
Throughout 1994 and 1995, my buddy Ken Shepherd kept telling me that the Web was going to change everything. Content would be given away free. The money would come from people wanting even more info, and hiring you to customize it for them.
I thought he was crazy and told him so. I'd no more give away my book "Troubleshooting: Tools, Tips and Techniques" on the web than I'd give away a year of my income. I told him he was an idealist. But what he said was so interesting that in 1995 I built a website called "Litt's Tips" and included much of the information from my book. When Ken Sheperd saw the site he just smiled knowingly.
A few months later a Litt's Tips visitor called on the phone. Would I be interested in teaching their entire company? Six weeks, thirty six thousand dollars? That training never came to fruition, but it sure got my attention. I built the Troubleshooters.Com website in July of 1996. Inquiries from Fortune 500 companies started coming in. Conversations with highly placed, intelligent executives became the norm. Troubleshooting revenue began. I needed to learn to talk. Fast.
Back at Warner Center Toastmasters, I took a deep breath and walked in the door. I was greeted warmly by several people. They told me about Toastmasters, what it did, how it did it. They told me about the ten speeches in the basic manual, with each adding one or more specific speaking skills. They told me about "table topics", where members could do two minute unplanned speeches. They told me about the dues. If memory serves me, international plus chapter were less than a hundred dollars a year. That's less than the price of one college course at a cheap school. I paid eight dollars for dinner and sat down to eat.
After dinner the meeting commenced. I was introduced as a guest, but wasn't required to speak. A short, meaningful "invocation" speech was given, then the Pledge of Allegiance recited. Then the four scheduled prepared speakers spoke. Later they would have "Table Topics", where members could make a two minute extemporaneous speech in answer to a question given them by the TabletopicMaster. Guests weren't called on, and anyone could decline to speak.
The prepared speakers were at all levels. Some were giving their first or second speeches. They showed some nervousness, even losing their place. But they did it, got their point across, and everyone was supportive.
Some of the speakers were experienced, having already given all 10 speeches in the basic manual. They were powerful and persuasive. One woman spoke on a late life reconciliation between herself and her father. It was wonderfully moving. I never wanted it to end. When it ended I found myself standing and applauding wildly, stopping once to wipe a tear from my eye. I figured I'd never hear a speech that good again. But I did.
At the Toastmasters District 52 speech competition. Speaker after speaker uncorked heartwarming, motivating talks. One contestant told of Dwight Eisenhower's youth, forever changing my view of the 1950's era president. My favorite contestant spoke of hope as the real key to all success and all happiness. The winner of the competition was an average looking man with an average sounding voice. He had a foreign accent and looked way too young to be speaking on serious subjects. But when he talked, you forgot you were at the Toastmasters competition. He transported you right into his world.
Martin Luther King could have given his "I Have a Dream" speech at that competition, and I'm really not sure who would have won. Every speech in that competition made me want to take action. Any one of those speakers could have convinced a room full of CEO's to implement the Universal Troubleshooting Process.
It was a revelation seeing the extent to which people could advance their speaking ability. But that wasn't the big revelation.
By the District 52 competition, I had been in Toastmasters for a month, given my first speech, seen many others give theirs, and heard all the evaluations. The BIG revelation was this: Sitting in that audience, looking at that lineup of spectacular speakers, I knew how they did it! They used certain strategies and tactics I recognized from other speeches and from evaluations. It's not magic!
I can't do it like those contestants. Not yet. But I know it isn't magic. And it's not something you're born with. No, it's strategies, tactics, techniques that are used. It's not easy. It takes a lot of practice, preparation, study and thought. But given that time and commitment, and a good learning environment like Toastmasters, anyone can become a truly great speaker. Good enough to make their dreams come true.
As I'm finishing up this article, I can hear you asking, "OK Steve, but did joining Toastmasters really change your life?".
No. I'm not a totally different person. I haven't cast off nervousness. I still don't move people to action with perfect consistency. The Universal Troubleshooting Process isn't in every Fortune 500 company.
But in little ways, I've changed. Talking with important people, I'm less nervous. More focused and concise. I know my bottom line point. And I now know enough to stop talking when I've made that point. And I know to structure the beginning and middle to lead to the desired end.
And people are responding a little better. The revenue is increasing. I'm taken more seriously. It's looking like maybe, just maybe, to the surprise of business school instructors worldwide, this small business will help make a market.
A couple years ago, a bottleneck analysis of my Troubleshooting business pointed to speaking performance as the bottleneck to making this market. It looks like Toastmasters is the tool that will help dramatically improve my verbal persuasiveness. Once that happens I'll know whether speaking performance was indeed the bottleneck. And of course if it was the bottleneck, the world will know it too, as their employers train them in Troubleshooting Process.
I have to sign off now. It's a warm spring day with a cool breeze. Balboa Park is three miles away. El Nino mud has made the path unskatable, but on a bicycle it's just perfect. Riding on that path around the trees and green fields, I'll be thinking about the last eight years, and how one after another I've removed bottlenecks. And how it looks like verbal persuasiveness may be the major remaining bottleneck. And how Toastmasters looks like exactly the right tool to widen that bottleneck.
As the fields and trees whiz by, with the whirring of my tires on the dusty pavement, and the sound of the wind in my ears, maybe my thoughts will turn to the opportunities we have when we can diagnose the bottlenecks in our lives, and find the tools to blast open those bottlenecks. And maybe I'll think back on the eight years spent making this new market, the market that the business schools said a small business could never make. And maybe, just maybe, I'll contemplate the fact that old dreams never die.
They just get closer to reality.
We anticipate two to five articles per issue, with issues coming out monthly. We look for articles that pertain to the Troubleshooting Process, or articles on tools, equipment or systems with a Troubleshooting slant. This can be done as an essay, with humor, with a case study, or some other literary device. A Troubleshooting poem would be nice. Submissions may mention a specific product, but must be useful without the purchase of that product. Content must greatly overpower advertising. Submissions should be between 250 and 2000 words long.
By submitting content, you give Troubleshooters.Com the non-exclusive, perpetual right to publish it on Troubleshooters.Com or any A3B3 website. Other than that, you retain the copyright and sole right to sell or give it away elsewhere. Troubleshooters.Com will acknowledge you as the author and, if you request, will display your copyright notice and/or a "reprinted by permission of author" notice. Obviously, you must be the copyright holder and must be legally able to grant us this perpetual right. We do not currently pay for articles.
Troubleshooters.Com reserves the right to edit any submission for clarity or brevity. Any published article will include a two sentence description of the author, a hypertext link to his or her email, and a phone number if desired. Upon request, we will include a hypertext link, at the end of the magazine issue, to the author's website, providing that website meets the Troubleshooters.Com criteria for links and that the author's website first links to Troubleshooters.Com. Authors: please understand we can't place hyperlinks inside articles. If we did, only the first article would be read, and we can't place every article first.
Submissions should be emailed to Steve Litt's email address, with subject line Article Submission. The first paragraph of your message should read as follows (unless other arrangements are previously made in writing):
After that paragraph, write the title, text of the article, and a two sentence description of the author.