Troubleshooting in 20 Questions

No matter how many possibilities you plan for, you can’t always prevent problems from coming up.

For a technical support representative faced with the responsibility of getting things working again, there’s one technique we use every time, with every problem situation.

If you’ve ever played the game 20 Questions, you know that there’s a technique to finding the correct answer to a completely unknown problem — If you try to guess at the very beginning you won’t get the answer. You have to cut the possibilities down, by asking broad questions:

“Is it alive?”
“Is it man-made?”
“Is it larger than a toaster?”

There are millions of possibilities, but by asking those questions that cut the field in half, we can get to the correct answer pretty quickly. The trick is to make sure that you start at the very highest level. You have to ask questions that divide your remaining possibilities in half each time. In this way, just like in 20 Questions, you should have a fairly solid idea of what’s wrong in about 20 questions – every time, no matter how complicated the problem is.

To ensure you’re cutting things in half, try to keep the questions binary in nature, for instance:

“Did it work before?”
“Is it happening to just one user, or more than one user?”
“Is it happening on just one machine, or more than one machine?”
“Can you reproduce the problem at will, or is it intermittent?”

Soon you will find a once unwieldy problem is cornered into one of 2 or 3 possibilities, each of which can just be directly checked to determine if they are, in fact, the root cause. Of course, once the root-cause is identified – then you can begin the joyous process of fixing it!


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