Find and use the right trouble shooter
I can’t say I have many friends over a long period of time. Manish is one of the few. Our acquaintance spanned over three decades. We are close. Even if we don’t speak for a while, when one of us calls up the other we talk as if we had met only the day before.
Generally we are aware of each other’s status.
Manish did well with his Architectural firm for many years, but gradually his business declined. His wife became unwell as well. Fortunately during this time he got a good offer from a well known firm where he joined in a senior position. This much I knew.
After quite a while when I heard his voice over phone, it was quite breathless, “I don’t know what I should do.” He sounded forlorn.
“What happened? Tell me.” I asked anxiously.
His words gushed forth all jumbled up. I couldn’t make a sense out of his reply.
Broadly I understood that he thought he was in grave trouble over a project he was doing. But I couldn’t get a clear picture of the problem at all.
Need for clear problem statement
I told him, “Manish, speak slowly. A few minutes more won’t make you miss a train.”
First ascertain whether the problem is really emergent and make the sufferer calm down
Often I use such metaphors to emphasize the difference between an emergent problem where every minute counts and a seemingly emergent problem of grave nature where you would get time to think and take action.
The person suffering from such a grave, but non-emergent problem thinks continuously about the problem but is unable to sit down and analyze the situation with a neutral unbiased mind. In reality, in most of these grave problems, you would have time.
We classify these as non-emergent grave problems where you would get time to think and take action in terms of days, if not weeks.
From his first chaotic statement I could assess the problem to be non-emergent. I could gather that it was nothing about health, lives or fire breaking out. It was something related to his business. So it can’t be emergent. But Manish should also understand this aspect of the problem. Only then he would be able to think clearly.
I use the idea of missing a train because that might have happened for most people. Otherwise also, one can easily imagine the shock of such an experience and realize the concept of time deadline.
Clarification, first stage
Fortunately Manish understood and calmed down. In a few minutes he narrated his story.
What I could understand,
- Manish took up a contract job for a building complex a few years back.
- The job halted after some progress.
- Now the private group whom we call ABC Housing has sent a seemingly legal letter to Manish using very harsh language and asking for a hefty sum as penalty for non-completion of the project. In his financial condition, in no way could Manish pay the penalty.
I understood his shock.
He is a gentleman and of mild honest nature. Never before was he accused of any wrong-doing. In fact, being an honest person to the core, he is incapable of any intentional wrong-doing.
Then his career project record has been a no-failure one. He can’t imagine someone accusing him of a project failure.
The demand for such a large penalty amount on top of all this, that too in such a harsh language, effectively crushed his spirit.
I am not a property person by a thousand miles. Neither do I have any affinity for legal matters. The problem domains were beyond me altogether. Still having gone through life, the most natural question I asked Manish automatically, “What is there in the Contract? What are the terms and conditions?”
There was silence on the other side for a few moments and then in broken voice Manish uttered, “I don’t have the Contract with me.”
Only then I realized why he felt so helpless.
Without any written Contract in hand and with a broken down problem owner in a problem domain totally unknown to me what should I do!
In any situation, usually there are always some actions that can be taken
From initial problem statement by Manish I now have to start the Clarification process by asking suitable questions and answers from emotionally disturbed problem owner Manish. At this first stage, clarification objective is not to form the complete problem definition but to have a Draft problem statement. As I, the decision analyst is extracting and accumulating the information, this draft problem definition should help me to understand broadly,
- Who are involved in the problem and roughly what kind of persons they are.
- What happened, especially the important events, and finally,
- The extent of possible damage.
It transpired that,
- A private group ABC Housing, all members in middle income group and in salaried jobs, offered the job to Manish to construct a housing complex for them. The Contract was signed two years back and after a year of successful completion of various stages of planning, design and sanction from various authorities, the work got stalled at the apex sanctioning authority.
- Manish was paid fully for each stage after completion of the stage. That was the Contract terms. Payment would be after successful completion of each stage. I asked him, “Did you take payment for any job that you have not done?” Manish said, “No, that was ruled out by the terms laid down in the Contract.” That’s good, I thought.
- “I don’t think they can do much harm in this case, and I feel they won’t go to Court. Rather, with more information, especially in written form, we would be able to take an aggressive path. I cannot accept their use of such bad language. Tell me, did they pursue you during this period of inactivity?” “No, not at all.” Manish confirmed my presumption.
Full clarification needs information in writing
Manish had given the original Contract to a person he knew for doing some part of the job, but the person behaved rudely the last time Manish talked to him. Being sensitive by nature he didn’t make any further attempt to get back the Contract. I reasoned: he didn’t need it as badly as now. Anyhow, we didn't have the Contract with us. That was the reality.
But this is information age. There must be something in emails, I thought.
“Don’t you have any email with ABC Housing?”
“Oh yes, I have lots of emails. We always communicated through emails.” At last he sounded energetic.
Decision analyst’s first recommendation
Now I could clearly suggest steps to be taken. Manish first have to,
- Compile the event timeline from his memory and the emails and then,
- Arrange the emails in support of the events in the timeline.
Importance of event timeline
Event timeline is nothing but a brief description of each event along with the time it happened. The events are to be arranged in a timeline, that is, serially in ascending sequence time.
In our case, I told Manish not only to form the timeline but also to write down the relevant email reference supporting each event.
A dummy event timeline follows.
Event timeline for the case of Mr. Manish Mukherjee against ABC Housing
- Event 1: Jan 2005: A friend of Manish brought along representatives of ABC Housing to Manish’s house and had a preliminary discussion regarding the project.
- Event 2: February 2005: Contract was signed between Manish Mukherjee and ABC Housing for a turnkey project of planning, design, and construction of a small private housing complex.
- Event 3: Mid 2006: Manish completed a few phases of the project to the satisfaction of ABC Housing who paid him fully for each phase.
- Event 4: September 2007: Manish received from ABC Housing a harsh abusive letter demanding penalty of a huge amount for not completing the rest of the project phases.
Once a draft event timeline is formed, it becomes easier to fill up the gaps and break down the broad events into more specific ones.
Objective is to finally incorporate in the event timeline everything that is in memory or in written form so that a legal counsel or a financial consultant or even a decision analyst can understand precisely what happened, who are involved and extent of damage.
The value of an event timeline increases greatly if against each event, supporting document references are recorded in writing.
An event timeline is essential for presenting a case to a legal counsel first time, and it can be used effectively for any kind of fault rectification including Personal life analysis.
Decision analyst’s Main Recommendation
Problem domain unfamiliar to the decision analyst
At the very outset I recognized that only a person having a good experience and expertise in building construction business and legal affairs can have any chance in solving this problem effectively.
Interestingly, if you decide to lend your service as a decision analyst to solve real life problems of all types, quickly you would realize that most of the real life problems involve expertise areas that you know little or nothing about.
That is natural.
That’s why we have among all kinds of expert areas,
- Expert physicians
- Fire fighters
- Legal counsels, and even
These are experts in their own work area and solve real life problems for others related to only their own specialization.
Every one of us consults and avails of the services of a specialist domain expert for dealing with our real life problem throughout our lives. If you fall sick you will consult an expert physician.
Usually though we follow our own methods that may not be very systematic, thorough or efficient, for choosing the right specialist domain expert, and are not aware that we also have an important role to play ourselves in achieving effective solution to the problem.
Here lie the importance of applying the technique of finding the right trouble shooter, technique of parallel action, principle of immediate action and use of the powerful problem solving tool of event timeline.
Main Recommendation: Finding the right Trouble shooter
I continued my recommendation pitch to Manish, “We need to seek help of a person who,
- Is trustworthy
- Will be fully sympathetic to your cause,
- Has sufficient respect (or other emotions) for you to act with all seriousness and urgency
- Will himself (or herself) solve your problem or will refer the case to a dependable work area expert for solving your problem.”
Having a lifelong experience of dealing with real life problems, automatically I differentiate between a trouble shooter and a domain or subject expert problem solver.
Trouble shooter, Expert and Decision analyst
A trouble shooter either himself (or herself) solves a problem or knows one or more than one person who can solve the problem. Usually we know such persons as Consultants. There can be medical consultants or legal consultants who will advise who to engage as expert problem solver.
A trouble shooter may help to solve problems in multiple domains, but usually he works in a single domain.
On the other hand, a domain or subject expert problem solver actually solves the problem. A good expert would recognize when he has failed to solve a problem and would refer the problem to a second expert.
A decision analyst may, in a rare case, may play the roles of both trouble shooter and domain expert, but usually he helps to solve the problem by guiding the problem owner to suitable persons for help as well as he provides overall guidance regarding priorities, necessary actions to be taken and methods to be followed.
Finding our right trouble shooter – Technique of parallel action
I told Manish, “You get in touch with any reliable person who can help you in this case. In parallel I would also contact two of my known persons who might help. Chances of one option succeeding are always higher than going in for a single option. On top of it, with parallel action you don’t lose any time.”
After some exploration and evaluation of alternatives, Manish identified a senior person in his own firm who works in this business area for a long time and has a quite close relationship with Manish. He is an important person the firm and is very well-connected. A deciding factor was the fact that he helped Manish once before.
“He is a very busy person. Right now he is in Ahmedabad in an important business meeting. He may not answer me.” Manish was hesitant. I understood the reason. Manish has joined the firm recently and so doesn’t have strong relationships with other employees. Would anyone help in his personal problem? That was in his mind.
Finding our right trouble shooter – Principle of immediate action
For long I believe in and act on this principle. To me,
In any serious decision making process, if an action needs to be taken and can be taken, take it NOW without any delay.
Basis of the principle is,
- With delay, the effectiveness of the action may not be fully utilized.
- You will be able to use the additional time for using the fruits of taking the action, and
- The number of actions to be taken in your Action Basket is reduced by 1, and the work load is reduced by that much.
I told Manish, “Call up your friend in Ahmedabad now. If he is close to you and if he is a good pro who knows about priorities and communication protocols, even if he is deep in an important meeting and cannot speak in answer, he would possibly reply you with a message.”
Leaving Manish to make his call, I started on my own actions of calling up two of my known potential trouble shooters. Unfortunately both of them responded negatively.
I should have anticipated – priorities vary between the situation of the problem belonging to a friend close to me and belonging to a friend of a friend of mine.
This is the Third Party effect.
Third party effect
If the first person wants help from a second person and requests a third person to place the problem to the Authority, that is, to the second person, incentive or strength of intention to help for the second person will be much less compared to the situation where the first person, the problem owner, directly asks for help from him.
Time and again I have seen this third party effect coming into play.
Example case of Third Party Effect
Once, a middle level manager working in our Bihar unit wanted a transfer to Kolkata, specifically to a unit under me, but his boss was not at all ready to release him. The sufferer could convey to me his desperation for the transfer. It was based purely on personal reasons. After listening to him for about 20 minutes and interrupting him with my own questions a few times, finally I told him about the Third Party Effect (not in technical language of course).
My advice to him was clear, “Go on making the request to your boss repeatedly at suitable intervals. Emphasize that it is your personal life that is at stake. And gradually show him that you are approaching a point of breaking down.”
I was not surprised when he showed up in Kolkata after three months.
Technique of parallel action showed promise
When I called up Manish again after half an hour, he explained to me what happened at his end.
As I had anticipated, even though Manish’s friend couldn’t take his call, he messaged that he would call back after 10 minutes. Manish had a brief discussion with him after all. His friend told him, he cannot do anything while in Ahmedabad. In two days he would be back to Kolkata and would do something about it.
The last part was important. His friend took up the problem, didn’t just brush it aside or avoid it.
Principle of free resource use
This is one of the most valuable Principles of Innovation that I ever came across and absorbed in my mindset.
The first time I encountered mention of this principle was in TRIZ, the powerful System of Innovation created by Russian Scientist Genrich Altshuller.
To state it in my own language,
While solving a problem, at every stage you should be on the lookout for any free resources that you can use in solving your problem. With judicious use of free resources, highest level of innovation can be achieved because cost of the solution would be minimal.
Examples of free resources
Air, Time and Space is three of the most important free resources that remain generally invisible to the problem solver as resource.
Examples of free resource use
Flyover (Space), Multi-storeyed car park (Space), Making my task list while waiting at my doctor’s waiting room (Time).
Final step and results
I told Manish, “Things are falling in place. We have already gone through the two things you can and must do – Organizing emails and preparing event timeline. Now you have got two days’ free time. Go hard at it and do a great compilation using this free time. When your friend offers you his time, you would be able to present your case with full clarity.”
That was all that I could tell Manish.
But yes, when a week later he called me again in his old cheerful voice, he informed me of the clean end to his problem. His friend directed him to a very experienced legal person working in this area for long years.
First, the legal counsel persuaded Manish to go personally to the person whom he had given the original Contract. Though with trepidation Manish did so, he was surprised to get back the Contract without any problem whatsoever.
After going through the Event Timeline, the Contract and other documents, the Senior Advocate wrote a short and precise letter to ABC Housing under his own signature, and that was the end of it. It was controlled aggression with a hint of a case for defamation.
He told Manish, “You may forget this bad experience. They’d never bother you again.”
I conjectured in my own mind, he must have had a discussion with the offenders. Otherwise he couldn’t have been so confident.
Who solved the problem?
Manish must have wondered about who solved his seemingly hopeless problem so swiftly. But I know for sure, it was God’s grace.
If you wish intensively for dissolution of a problem with positive results and strive hard towards this objective, unexpected help from unknown quarters you will get for sure.