Caught By The Chrome

Anyone remember the power failure during the 2012 Superbowl? Probably not, for all that it lasted for a whopping 35 minutes, or, as comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “only two months short of New Orleans’ personal best.”

The funny thing about the power failure, however, was not Stephen Colbert making jokes about it, but how a number of people blamed the failure on Beyonce. Did Beyonce have anything to do with it? Well, Beyonce was playing at the time, but that’s about the only connection. I know that a lot people think she’s pretty impressive, but knocking out the power to the Superbowl? Even for Beyonce, that’s a bit much. Nonetheless, the fact that the two events were coincident in time meant that, for many people, there must have been a connection.

This is called getting caught by the chrome: rather than focusing on the actual problem in front of us, such as a power failure, our attention is caught by something peripheral. Sometimes, if we get lucky, that bit of chrome might also turn out to be a symptom of the problem, but not always.

Basically, a problem is composed of three elements: the problem itself, the symptoms, and the chrome. Most of the time, we can’t actually see the problem. What we can see are the symptoms and the chrome. The symptoms are useful: they can lead us to the problem. When you go to the doctor and the doctor asks questions about how you are feeling, she is exploring your symptoms. Knowing your symptoms helps her identify what is wrong with you, or at least sound authoritative when she tells you to take two aspirin and call the advice nurse in the morning.

The chrome is the shiny stuff that’s nice to look at: the things that are easy to see and, because it’s easy to see, also easy to mistake for a symptom or the actual problem. Sometimes we also mistake the symptoms for the actual problem, essentially treating the symptoms as chrome instead of as clues to what is actually wrong.

Now, at least for those watching on TV, whether Beyonce was problem, symptom, or chrome, was probably pretty much irrelevant. But for those actually tasked with dealing with the problem, figuring out the difference is considerably more important.

Let’s consider the case of Tim, newly appointed CEO of big data company Hornblower Software. Hornblower is considered a rising star in the big data space, yet when Tim came in, the company hadn’t produced a product in over a year. The reasons for this varied, freely mixing chrome and symptoms. Was it the engineer who was incompetent and insubordinate, doing whatever he wanted and doing it all badly? Was it the engineer who was competent, but completely unwilling to take direction, making changes as he thought fit? Was it the several engineers who did enough to get by but who weren’t willing to make major efforts on the part of the team? The first guy quit shortly after Tim came in, producing a belief that the problems would all go with him.

There is a cliched scene in countless murder mysteries in which our hero is suspected of the murder and arrested. Another murder then occurs while he’s sitting in jail, forcing the police to grudgingly conclude that maybe he really isn’t guilty. The problems at Hornblower didn’t go away when the first guy quit, suggesting pretty strongly that he was at best a symptom of the larger problem, at worst nothing more than chrome. Well, in that case the problem must the other guy, the one would wouldn’t take direction! After all, as the VP of Engineering put it, “I can’t tell him what to do.”

We can certainly agree that if you have an employee who refuses to take any direction that is A problem, whether or not it is THE problem. In this case, it was also a distraction from the real problem.

The trick to solving the real problem is first to identify the real problem. To do that, you have to get away from the chrome and focus on the symptoms. There were many: the lack of products, rogue engineers, infighting, dispirited team members, to list just the major ones. When did they start? Where did they occur? Were there any common elements? When we take the time to examine the symptoms and identify the boundaries of their occurrence, then we can start to understand the real problem. In this case, the common element was the VP of Engineering, who, it turned out, was either intimidating or ineffectual: those who found him intimidating exhibited low motivation, while those who realized that he was a paper tiger simply ignored him. And while he might have been quite competent technically, he wasn’t capable of communicating with other team members, organizing them, or focusing their efforts. The net result was an ineffective engineering organization.

The only real question left at this point is whether Tim will be able to see past the chrome fast enough to make a difference.

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