A reader asks:
I wanted to get your advice on developing a team’s troubleshooting skills. I work with a group of analysts who do fine handling issues they've seen before, or when there's a procedure that applies exactly, but have trouble troubleshooting less common situations. Unfortunately, the nature of our work means that it's not possible to develop procedures for all possible things that could go wrong.
Often, they come to me for help. My impression is that they have all the facts they need to troubleshoot, but they don't seem to be able to ask themselves the right questions. For example, if I ask things like, "Is it all the widgets, or just the green ones? What are the steps to build a a green widget? Where's the last point in the process all the widgets looked right?" I can usually talk them through the process of finding the error. This says to me that it's not a straightforward knowledge issue, but something more complex.
My concern isn't about the impact on me (which is minimal, and providing advice is something I'm expected to do, although I’m not their manager), but about what this might indicate about the training and abilities of our analysts. I suspect I need to make changes in how I respond to their questions, as well as some changes in training. Do you have any suggestions as to what I could be doing differently?
It’s the old “teach a man to fish” adage; you’re right to think that you’ll be doing them and your company a service if you can coach them into develop the ability to troubleshoot on their own, rather than always needing to seek your help.
First, have you told this group directly that they should be building troubleshooting skills themselves? Or has their manager told them? If no one has explicitly told them that this is something they should be working towards, they might not even know it’s part of the expectations for their roles; they might think that the status quo is perfectly fine and there’s no reason to change it.
So start by telling them! I’d say something like this: “I’m always glad to help you think through these problems, but I’d also like you to work toward being able to troubleshoot problems yourself. You have enough experience under your belt now that if you step back and brainstorm a bit, I think you’ll start coming up with the same sorts of questions that I ask you when you come to me, and that will lead you toward starting to find solutions on your own. I want to stress that I’m not telling you to stop coming to me – not at all – but rather just that I’d like to see you actively working toward building this skill yourself. It’s really the next step for development in your role. What do you think about that?”
Then, the next time they come to you for help, be deliberate about coaching them through the process you’re using. Try asking them questions like: “What do you think?” “What principles from troubleshooting that we’ve done in the past might apply here?” “Where do you think would be good a place to look first?”
And when you do step in and guide them toward a solution, explain a bit about your thought process, so that they get an inside look at how you’re approaching the problem. Why are you starting where you’re starting? What makes you flag something as potentially the problem? How did you figure this out back when you were more junior?
Beyond that, I’d also make sure that you’ve shared your impressions with their manager as well. She may have no idea that her team needs to build these skills unless you tell her. This isn’t about complaining or throwing her staff members under the bus; rather, it’s about looping her into what you’ve observed and letting her know how you’re trying to coach them.
You sound like you’re a great colleague – kudos to you for wanting to help coach these team members!