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Want to solve a problem? Tell a success story.


Most people try to solve a problem by focusing on the problem and analyzing it to discover root causes.  The best way to solve a problem is not to focus on the problem.   Instead, find a time when you, or someone else, successfully solved a problem that is similar to the one you want to solve.  Tell the story of that success.  Then ask, “What do I notice, what stands out?”   Next ask, “Given what I notice, what does this suggest about what I could or should do?”   Record your answers to these questions.  Finally, use what you’ve uncovered from examining the success example to design an action experiment.  Take the ideas about what you could or should do and try them out on the problem you wish to solve. 

How It Works: Solving a Problem at the FAA

I used this method with a team of maintenance technicians in the Federal Aviation Administration. The team needed to train and certify several new, inexperienced technicians.  The new technicians had been through extensive classroom training the year before, and had received some on-the-job training, but they still weren’t trained on some of the more complex radar and navigational equipment, or certified to  maintain it.  This meant they couldn’t help with certain kinds of equipment, and work was backing up.   

 The problem:  How to get the new technicians trained, which would take time, while keeping up with already backed-up maintenance?  

Tell A Success Story

Instead of focusing on this problem, I asked the team to tell me about a time when they were successful in getting someone trained, in spite of a demanding work load.  It took a few minutes for the team to recall an example, but eventually someone did.  After telling the story, which I recorded on a flip chart, I asked the team, “What do you notice?  What stands out?”  

Review the Story for Clues

They pointed out that the training proccess was a mini-apprenticeship.   A senior technician would take the new technician under his wing and show him the ropes, bit by bit.  First, the new technician would spend time watching the senior technician perform maintenance on the equipment.  The senior technician would explain what he was doing and why, and the new technician would ask questions.  Next, when the senior technician and the new technician felt ready, the new technician would try doing some of the maintenance while being watched and coached by the senior technician.  As the new technician became more confident over several weeks or months, the senior technician would give less and less coaching.  After several months, the new technician was usually ready to take the certifying exam given by technician from a different maintenance team.  When the new technician passed the certifying exam, they were given responsibility for maintaining that type of equipment.

The Role of the Supervisor

The team noticed another element in the success story featuring  an apprenticeship process.  Their supervisor.  The supervisor secured permission from air traffic control for release of the radar equipment for training purposes, taking off-line for managing air traffic.  This took advanced coordination and planning. Sometimes at the last-minute, due to weather or outages elsewhere in the air traffic system, the equipment release was rescheduled.   Another thing the supervisor did was make sure that training sessions were not postponed or interrupted by other, competing demands.  Getting the equipment released for training was a big deal, so it was important to take advantage of the scheduled time.

Apply the Clues to the Problem and Do an Experiment

With the elements of the success story now made visible, I suggested that the team apply the same elements to their current situation, and design an action experiment.  Together, we identified who needed training, who would oversee and provide training, estimated how long the training period would take, and when we would meet again to review the results of the experiment.   I agreed to tell the supervisor of what we had come up with, and to get the supervisor’s commitment to arrange the equipment release, and protect the training sessions from interruption or delays. 

Review the Results

We met again 8 weeks later to review the experiment.  Results?  Success!  The training sequence had gone as planned, with support from the senior technicians and the supervisor.  The new technicians had their certifying exams scheduled, and soon after that, they passed their exams and were given responsibility for maintaining that specific equipment, with back up support from the senior technicians.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/02/08 10:21 am

    Great post, Clarissa. My only offering is that I often ask “What didn’t work?” and explore why (whatever) didn’t work. These explorations in addition to what you’ve written often help us (me, NextStage) understand when, where, why and how failures occurred.
    And again, great post!

  2. 2010/02/08 10:55 am

    Thanks for the comment! Asking what doesn’t work can provide value.
    I was intentionally being a bit provocative. Looking only there, however, limits the amount and value of the information needed to solve the problem.

    Successes show us how things work when they are right, versus how things work when they are wrong. Successes also minimize feelings of threat or blame. This frees our brains to see the issue from a more neutral, perhaps even playful, vantage point, which is essential for good problem solving.

    Clarissa Sawyer

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