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Effective Problem Solving

Do you get frustrated by technology? When things go wrong – as they inevitably do – how do you go about solving them? Do you even know where to turn for help?

I was recently asked how it was that I seemed to just “know” how to fix stuff. My initial response was that it   comes naturally – but then I wondered if I could somehow break down my thinking process and give you a way to be a better problem-solver…

It’s kinda weird to think about my own thinking, but here goes…

0. Mindset – Assume that the Problem is ME until proven otherwise

I start with the assumption that the problem is caused completely by me or my own faulty equipment. This way, I allow myself to take full responsibility for finding and fixing the problem – rather than assuming it is caused by someone else which dis-empowers me from being able to fix the problem.

A lot of people hit a technical problem and immediately jump to the conclusion that “oh, that software doesn’t work” – in spite of the fact that hundreds or even thousands of other people are successfully using it to do whatever it is that supposedly “doesn’t work”.

Accept that the problem may very well be you or your machine or your particular configuration, and it enables you to tackle the problem with the mindset that it CAN BE FOUND and FIXED!

1. Define the problem and the desired outcome

Start by identifying and defining the problem as well as the desired outcome (which may be as simple as “problem no longer exists!”). You want to make sure you are focused on the right issue – don’t spend a bunch of time fixing the car engine when the real reason it won’t go is four flat tyres!

2. Identify all possible contributors

With technology, there are many, many moving parts at work. I brainstorm all the likely culprits.

For example, let’s say that I am having trouble accessing a particular website.

My list might look like this:

a. Target website server might be “down”

b. Trouble with my Internet Service Provider

c. Trouble with my local network (in my home/office)

d. Trouble with my browser

I don’t drill into esoteric possibilities on the first pass (like faulty hardware) in the early stage – just hit the “big ticket” possibilities.

3. Eliminate Possible Causes

I then use a process of elimination to remove culprits from my list.

Taking the list above, I would for example:

a. Try to access another common website – e.g. Amazon.com

If I can get through to Amazon.com, it pretty much eliminates the network (both local and my ISP), and also demonstrates that my browser is working to some degree (there may be issues with a particular plugin that affects the target website though).

b. Try to access the target website from a different machine or device (e.g. my iPhone)

If I can get to the target machine from a different device, then the problem is not with the target website being “down” in any way. It is starting to look more and more like a problem on my machine or possibly my browser settings.

c. Clear browser cache completely. Stop and restart browser. Try target website again

Chances are this will fix the issue, but if not…

d. Try accessing from a different browser (e.g. Safari)

If this works, it means that the problem is in my normal browser – probably a plugin

e. Check for updates on all software I am using in the process

There may be a critical update that solves my exact problem

4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 Until Problem Solved or Out of Ideas

Each iteration through the steps may uncover fresh paths to explore or new details that lead me closer to a solution. I will keep brainstorming possible causes and ways to test each theory until I’ve either fixed the problem, run out of ideas, OR I’ve reached the limit of what I am able to do on my own and need help from a specialist.

The good thing about going through the brainstorming and elimination steps is that I have probably identified the right person or company I need to speak with to move forward – whether that is my internet service provider, my software manufacturer or the hardware manufacturer.

5. Document What I Have Found and Ask For Help

If I haven’t solved the problem, I will quickly outline the tests I have run and the outcomes and take it to the RELEVANT specialist who can help me.

If I’m not sure which specialist to ask, I ask my network to help me identify them. e.g. “I’m having a problem displaying XYZ site in Safari on my Mac – but it works OK in FireFox. Where do you think would be the best place to get help?”

Hope this helps!