Try Three Times:  When to Show Initiative & When to Ask for Help

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But what do you do after that? Should we follow the mantra of my childhood hero, Curly Howard, who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking ‘til you DO succeed!” Or should we ask for help?

Try Three Attempts to Solve the Problem Before Asking for HelpThree times is the trifecta of trying. Beware the temptation to immediately alleviate yourself from the weight of uncertainty and doubt by asking a coworker or supervisor to solve the problem for you. When faced with a problem or task, research the issue until you can confidently take a stab at a solution. It might work, it might not. But the attempt will definitely afford you a valuable learning experience. If you do not succeed, complete additional and independent research and try again. In this day and age, technology has made information gathering an easily accessible process. There is simply no excuse for not making an effort to research a problem given all the resources available at your fingertips. If you still do not make the grade, research one more time and execute. Perhaps consult a colleague or professional resource from your personal network. There’s no harm in seeking knowledge as long as your intent is to use it to solve a problem rather than aiming to have someone solve it for you. After you have fully exhausted these three attempts to resolve the task and achieved little or no success, it’s time to call in reinforcements. 

During my time as an F-15 Aircraft Maintenance Officer, jets returned from flight that were labeled “Code 3”. This signaled a problem that grounded them until the problem was trouble shot, fixed, and operationally checked. If the jet flew again and landed with the same issue, we knew we hadn’t isolated the root problem and corrected it. The maintainers would resume troubleshooting and when they were confident they had fixed the problem, they would bring the flight release paperwork for me to sign off on signaling the jet was “Code 1” i.e. ready to fly.

When asked to sign off on these particular aircraft, I would ask the technicians this one question, “If the aircraft comes back again with the same issue, what would you try next?” If they had a response which entailed a possible solution, we knew we still had work to do to solve this problem. If, however, they said, “We have exhausted the realm of our technical knowledge and data”, then I knew it was time to bring in expertise, either from a Major Command (Maj Com) and/or Subject Matter Experts (SME), should the jet land with a repeat issue.

Use Your Resources and Know When to Ask for HelpAs an employer, I love individuals who exhaust every resource within their knowledge sphere to solve issues. On the flip side, I detest individuals who immediately demand assistance at the first sign of frustration. I hired you to solve problems, not point them out to me to solve! But equally frustrating are those employees who won’t escalate a problem even though they’ve gone way past their ability to solve it. It’s like a dog who won’t let go of a bone. Only that bone is costing the organization valuable time and resources. Please realize, to your employer this failure to ask for help does not look like tenacity, it appears to be insecurity, or worse yet, pride.

Know When to Ask for HelpWhen faced with a problem you cannot solve or a solution you cannot create, escalate it. Show your employer the paths you’ve taken in order to resolve the issue at the lowest level. They will respect the fact that you have shown the initiative to try and figure it out, AND that you knew when to stop spinning your wheels and call in a tow truck. Knowing what you don’t know is as critical to leadership as knowing what you do know. This self-awareness will enable you to learn new things and fly to new problem solving heights!


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