Problem Solving and Personal Leadership

I had a rare opportunity to sit in on NASA’s Senior Management Council Meeting last week.  It was worth coming in from the flu and missing Michael Jackson’s funeral to take what was for me a glimpse into how an organization like NASA approaches problem-solving.  Acting Administrator, Chris Scolese moved methodically from issue to issue …What problem are we trying to solve? Do we have a plan? Did we solve the problem?

As individuals and as leaders, do we apply the same rigor and approach to problem solving?  Back in the good ole days, as a technician and systems programmer, problem determination was an important skill.  I recall one situation, in pulling an all-nighter, I had to wait for my colleague and good pal GJB to “do his thing” before I could do mine.  However, his stuff didn’t work.  So what did he do? He just kept trying over, and over, and over, again.  It was four o’clock in the morning. S o sleep deprived with patience exhausted, I yelled, “For crying out loud, Dude … just do something different! ANYTHING!”

Not surprisingly, some of the same characteristics of a good problem-solver can be found in a good leader.   Courage, creativity, focus, tenacity. 

Chuck Musciano, in his blog, Shaking the Mouse, relates a story about one woman’s approach to problem determination.  When a sales rep of a major IT company began to experience … “the demon of demos” … she began to shake the mouse to get things to start working.

Now, it was true that the [optical] mouse driver did hang every so often, but it was due to a small input buffer being overrun with too many mouse events.  If you waited a few seconds, the buffer would drain and the mouse would recover no shaking necessary.  This woman, however, believed that mouse was clogged and that shaking was required to fix it.  It clearly worked: every time she shook the mouse, it started working again.

My pal David is a digital image technician.  Printers and copiers … ugh … are the bane of my existence.  Here’s my problem solving technique — when I get a paper jam, I just open doors and slam them shut until it clears; if my print doesn’t come out right, I just go through all the permutations and combinations of inserting the paper; by now, I’m sweating and crying and then email document to someone else to print.  But, David is good at problem solving.  First, you show it who is boss.  Then, don’t be afraid of a little electrical shock and don’t be afraid to take it apart and try stuff, you can shake that off  that shock it just wakes you up.  Then you wrestle with the little devil until it gives up and works.    

Ok, David.  I think those reflect sound personal leadership principles.  Here’s a quote that gets pretty close to his technique:

Why don’t we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?

This suggests that courage is better than process.  But perhaps leaders of organizations should make risk-based decisions about taking those safety labels off, nurture an environment for creativity, and ensure that they have enough energy and focus to wrestle the problems until they just give in and allow themselves to be resolved.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center



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