Problems Don’t Get Better With Age

June 12th, 2013 / Comments Off on Problems Don’t Get Better With Age

Guest Post for thoughtLEADERS, LLC

In business, as in life, one thing is always certain—you will run into problems. But contrary to popular belief, problems are not bad things. In fact, I think they can be good things—if you look out for them and work to fix them fast.

People fear problems and as a result, they love to ignore them. The irony: that’s really what fuels them. If you can find problems early, you often can solve them when it takes a relatively minor act to fix (and you can get to an exponentially better place fairly quickly). The worst time to solve a problem is when it becomes a major issue and either spins out of control or results in public embarrassment. Think about Netflix going down on Christmas Eve due to AWS issues. I am sure that no one at Netflix was expecting to do damage control on Christmas Eve. It should not have gotten to that point.

The best way to solve any kind of problem is to build into the corporate culture a practice and process that will help to seek out issues early and take care of them. Andy Grove wrote about this in his epic book, Only The Paranoid Survive. Often there is expertise to solve an issue or concern within the company, but people don’t feel empowered (or sanctioned) to do it. Teams need to acknowledge their biggest issues, understand what can be done to fix them, then know it is not optional to let the current situation continue.

When I arrived at eBay people had convinced themselves that availability and scalability issues were okay as what we were doing was “hard” and hadn’t been done before. That’s not acceptable. Problems need to be solved, not supported.

So what’s the process and path to fixing problems early? In addition to a lot of listening, I would ask teams to identify three things that were in their control to fix. This took a little bit of time because often individuals would bring up issues that existed in other areas first, and this exercise is about solving things entirely within our control.

After the teams identified the top three issues, we would assign an owner and a date, and the same team would proceed to focus on fixing the issues and making things better.

One time, in eBay product development, the issue was “build times” (how long it takes to compile code after it was written) for developers. It had crept up to 12 hours and was very frustrating you lost half a day before finding out if the code was viable. By making myriad changes, including using more powerful servers and tweaking the build programs, the product development team got it back to 30 minutes.

Another time, the issue was that billing had become too cumbersome and too difficult to scale—and as a result bad debt was creeping out of control. Big problem on the horizon! With focus, a different leader and some time, we had everything under control in a quarter or so.

It’s necessary to note, it’s also important to be able to identify which problems are significant or could become significant and which ones aren’t. You could spend all day unearthing problems and issues that will not ever move the needle on significance. As I like to say, don’t confuse action for traction.

Developing a culture that can discern which problems have the potential to become huge is critical to developing high performance teams. And, you have to not only identify the issue that exists, but also the potential ramifications of that issue.

With this kind of attention on identifying and categorizing problems, it’s easy to turn your problems into opportunities to make your organization better.


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