Monthly Archives: September 2013

You Must Try, and then You Must Ask

I like working with grownups.

Here’s an example:

When I was a wee little New Hire at my current employer, one of the things that came up a lot was the “15 minute rule.” That is, if you’re stuck on a problem, take a solid 15 minutes to bash your brain against it in whatever manner you see fit. However, if you still don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone. I shorten this down to “You must try, and then you must ask.” It’s a simply-worded rule, which works something like this:

  1. If you’ve hit the point of giving up, you have to push yourself for another 15 minutes. The pressure is now off. You know that in 15 minutes, you’ll be able to take what you found and talk to another person about it and get their help. For right now, all you have to do is step back and look at the whole problem from the top. Maybe you’ll find the solution that was sitting there all along. Maybe you’ll convince yourself it’s completely unsolvable. Whatever you end up doing, those next 15 minutes are where you look at the problem one more time.

  2. 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.

  3. After that, you must ask someone for help. Okay, you’ve decided you need help, and you’ve spent another 15 minutes looking at the problem again (and again (and again)), and you’ve documented your approach.

    Now, stop.
    Stop trying to solve the problem, if only for a moment.

    Call for help. Even if you think that you almost have it, stop. Even if you think that an incarnation of the wisdom of the masters is perched on your shoulder whispering the answer in your ear, stop. Write that email or walk over to the office/cube/etc. or cast the appropriate summoning spell, but make sure that someone else knows that you need help. Request assistance, state the problem, and show your work. You may not get help right away, but now you’ve employed at least one other brain in helping you, and now they have a great head-start, courtesy of you.

So, that’s the 15 Minute Rule in 3 easy steps.

Here’s why it’s important:

  1. Your paid hours are costing someone money. You can be in a Professional Services Organization, an internal IT organization, or an independent contractor, but it all works out to the same thing; someone is paying for your skills. While it may feel good to figure out the answer on your own, there’s no medal for wasting 3 hours worth of money on a problem that doesn’t merit that kind of time. In a sneaky way, this also helps you value your own time, if only by making you ask yourself “Is this problem worth this much of my time?”

  2. Your colleagues will help you because they’re playing by the same rules. This means they’re used to asking and listening to informed questions, and they’ll be expecting the same from their peers. Needless to say, use your common sense… find someone that isn’t heads-down in a problem of their own; no one likes to have their flow interrupted. That being said, your 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.

  3. Last but certainly not least, You have to interact with your colleagues because they have the answers you need. Building and maintaining an enterprise software platform (to choose something of appropriately fiendish complexity) is not a solo sport. Your colleagues have different ways of understanding problems and different ways of using the knowledge they have. This goes for many definitions of colleague and many definitions of knowledge.

This eventually turns into a virtuous cycle. People value each others’ time and their own, so they do their own homework before asking a question. In turn, people are more likely to answer questions because they know the person asking will give them the interesting part of the problem to solve.

Put another way: by explicitly taking enough time, everyone saves time.


Filed under Working With Grownups

The Buttermilk Problem

Sitting in a business school class on leadership, we were asked to count off into groups of three.

Each group got handed a cup with some buttermilk. Two people in the group had to convince the other one to drink it in the next 5 minutes.

After time was up, a quick poll showed that most of the groups convinced the person to drink the buttermilk. Of the three groups that didn’t, two of them said “their arguments weren’t convincing.”

When my group was asked, I replied “The win condition was not drinking the buttermilk, so I didn’t listen and kept saying ‘no’ until they gave up.”

During the ensuing “step into my office, because you’re being a space alien again” discussion with the professor, we pulled apart what I’d said. After much back and forth, we came to the following:

At the point that I decided “I win if I don’t drink the buttermilk”, I was no longer playing the game.

I had created, on the spot and with no one else knowing, a new game called “I need to tell my peers that I won, because that confirms my self-image of being clever.” That new game had only one rule: “Don’t drink the buttermilk,” which then carried the optimal strategy of “Don’t listen and just say ‘no’ until they give up.” QED.

This goes for the general discussion of ideas as well, and I’m not immune to slipping back into that mode of thinking. So, I ask a few questions of myself every now and then:

  1. Am I willing to be wrong or to “lose”?
  2. What changes if I’m wrong or I “lose”?
  3. How much of my life/self/work/etc. do I feel I have to re-evaluate if I’m wrong or I “lose”?

I’ve found that honest answers to those questions mean that the stakes are typically quite low…. and that has made it a lot easier to just, well, live.

In the past three years of working in a professional services role, I’ve learned how to tell when a customer is actually engaged and listening, or if they’re playing their own internal game of “Don’t drink the buttermilk.”

What does it look like when someone has started playing this game in their own head?
In short, they look bored and disengaged. If someone in front of you was saying words that were completely irrelevant to you and you couldn’t leave, you’d be awfully bored, too.

Psychology Today has a good article on how to know if you’re boring someone. A few of these are:

  1. Repeated, perfunctory responses (e.g. “Got it.”, “Uh huh.”). The less variation, the more boredom.
  2. Simple/simplistic questions (e.g. “Then what?”, “Really?”). See #1.
  3. Imbalance of talking time. Interested people take more airtime because they want to know more.

What if you notice that a person has disengaged like this?
If you don’t just want to walk out of the room, what can you do to continue or end the discussion gracefully?

  1. Address them by name. Use the name/honorific with which they introduced themselves. The processing of proper names is pretty deep down in human hardware, and it’ll break them out of the “bored” mindset, at least momentarily. Once you have their attention, ask them to contribute (e.g. “What do you want to know about the buttermilk?”). This will give you a chance to reset the conversation.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. You didn’t wake up thinking that you’d be a threat to someone’s self-worth, but there you are. They feel like they’re backed into a corner, and acknowledging your point means they’re a lesser person. Remove the pressure by lowering the stakes, possibly with humor. (e.g. “Yeah, I’m supposed to convince you to drink the buttermilk. You’re clearly not interested, though. Can we get agreement on there being buttermilk in front of you?”)
  3. If all else fails, go random. If they’re transparently not listening (i.e. they’re staring at their smartphone while saying ‘uh huh’ a lot.) say something completely unrelated to the subject. It could be just a change of topic, or something completely nonsensical (e.g. “spatula woodchipper empathetic buttermilk”). You’ll probably get their attention, but they’ll also probably feel embarrassed and mocked. It works, but you’re rolling the dice.
  4. If that fails, reschedule. Okay. Nothing has worked. They’re not listening. Bring the conversation to a natural close, and ask to reschedule for another time when they’re ready to talk. Being courteous rarely goes wrong.

In short: Self-worth is a complex phenomenon; pay attention and handle carefully.


Filed under Working With Grownups