Don't waste a good failure

My troubleshooting rules can really help focus on solving a problem, but maybe first you’d like to not solve the problem for a while.


Well, let’s look at a common sequence of events in creative or constructional work of many kinds:

  1. See a problem.
  2. Figure out how to fix it.
  3. Fix it.

That’s pretty instinctual. Can’t really do those out of order. And once you’ve seen the problem, there is often some amount of urgency to get to the fix.

But the next step, if you’re conscientious, is:

4.. Prevent the problem from recurring.

Once you’ve solved lots of problems in your domain (or in life), you start to do #4 instinctively, maybe even compulsively, because you’ve seen how problems can recur. That often leads to:

4.a. Put some kind of check in place to recognize when the problem recurs.

The software example of this would be a test case, but it might also be a weekly report, or a face-to-face meeting, or a Date Night or a note on your calendar that says “Test smoke alarm batteries.”

But then, you’d like to be sure that your check itself will catch the problem when it does recur. So, you might want to:

4.b. Test the check.

And the easiest way to test the check is to do it before the problem is fixed!

So, a better overall process can be:

  1. See a problem.
  2. Put some kind of check in place to recognize when the problem recurs.
  3. Run the check to confirm that it finds the problem.
  4. Figure out how to fix the problem.
  5. Fix it.
  6. Run the check, to confirm that your fix and your check both work by not finding the problem.

Again, the software version of this is “Write the test case before fixing the bug,” but it’s still pretty generalizable.

Some other activities you could do between finding and fixing a problem include:

  • Document it.
  • Measure it.
  • See what it reminds you of - could it be more than one problem, or could it occur elsewhere where you’re not seeing it?
  • Use it as a training example.

The key is that being able to see a problem happen is really valuable, and you don’t want to lose that value too soon.