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A Wrong Answer is Worse than No Answer

Consulting is an interesting business. You don’t always get to see the full lifecycle of the project you architected. You move around companies and tech stacks and constantly change the role you’re playing on a given team.

But what’s surprisingly consistent, are the problems you encounter. I’ve written before that most technical problems turn out to be people problems. But a large part of that is due to communication. So let’s talk through some of the most common issues.

Poor problem definition

The first thing we see is that people are proposing solutions without defining and refining the problem they’re trying to solve. This can be a challenging thing to do!

Defining a problem involves decoupling all of the related issues and focusing on the root cause. It means recognizing all of the different stakeholders and prioritizing the pain points the solution needs to address.

If important pieces of the puzzle are missed, the solution won’t adequately address the issue.

Wishful thinking

Problem definition is tightly coupled with wishful thinking. This is when the team members find themselves trying to oversimplify a problem so the solution is comfortable for them. We can “just” do this. We only need to add this. It’s really not that big a deal, we can get around it with this new tool. In some cases, it can go so far as saying “we don’t have a problem at all”.

Often, they’re ignoring the messy, people parts of the problem.

Adding Complexity

The flip side to this is when team members want things to be complicated. There are various reasons for this. Either they have trouble separating the concerns in their head. Or they want to own a bigger problem and solution for some sense of job security.

Whatever the reason, this is just as common as wishful thinking. Like I said earlier, defining a problem is incredibly important, and there is a reason a lot of teams skip over this step.

Lack of broad knowledge

Once a problem is defined, the instinct is to solve it. But chiming in with a solution right away is rarely the right course of action. That’s because your response is always going to be based on your existing knowledge. Sometimes that’s sufficient, but often it’s better to do some research.

Perhaps you’re well versed in all the potential solutions, but are their newer ones? Have existing technologies made changes that no longer make them a fit? Are any of your options improving their community support or other positive changes that would put them into consideration?

Overly opinionated contributors

This is the point at which everyone comes back to the table and starts making recommendations. And in most every team there will be one person who did slanted research. They may have checked out the options, but they did so with the determination that their favorite tech was the clear answer.

You need people besides those voices. Your most valuable contributions will be those presenting options, listing pros and cons, potential risks, etc. You can get spin from marketing sites, or product representatives, you need a real-world solution and that’s what you’re looking for from your team members.

Ignoring situational considerations

Another thing that may come up when examining solutions is team members who consider technical purity only. Real-world solutions require a lot of different inputs.

You want to pick a path that accounts for existing team knowledge, time and cost limitations, available community support, etc. Discounting these considerations means the solution won’t be viable.

What can we do?

Asking a question without the full scope is problematic. Getting the wrong answer and running with it causes more problems.

Define your problem, take the time to actually consider your options with real-world constraints. Then figure out the best way forward for your team. Not the team you wish you had!

I’m confident in saying that avoiding these pitfalls will have a dramatic effect on the success of the technology you build.

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Laurie Barth
22 Oct, 2019