Why I Love Chicken Little (and You Should Too)

3 min read

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

It’s probable that if you have spent any time around Americans, you know the story of Chicken Little. If you have spent more time around the English and their commonwealth ilk, you probably know the story better as Henny Penny. If you do not, here is a quick summary: a small anthropomorphic farm bird named either Chicken Little or Henny Penny is struck on the head by a falling acorn and then begins to share the experience loudly and excitedly with everyone. Of course the experience is not “an acorn hit me in the head,” but instead the entire sky is crashing down and everyone is in jeopardy.

In IT, this is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Issues get magnified exponentially on a strangely frequent basis. Here are some of my favorites (possibly made up), with their translations:

  • Reported Problem: “NOBODY CAN PRINT!”
  • Possibly Real Problem: “I hit the print button and nothing happened, and then I hit it four more times and nothing happened.”
  • Culprit: “I have not printed anything since last week when I was on the 23rd floor and forgot to change my printer back to the one outside my office. There’s now a printer on 23 spitting out the remainder of the combined 305 pages I printed since I did it 5 times.”

  • Reported Problem: “Everyone’s complaining about the website being slow!”
  • Possibly Real Problem: “I’m at an airport for a layover in Guam and I tried to pull up our website.”
  • Culprit: “I’m tethered to my satellite phone and also trying to stream netflix and spotify while watching a youtube video and then tried to pull up the website.”

  • Reported Problem: “I have not been able to get my voicemail for weeks!”
  • Possibly Real Problem: “I forgot my voicemail password 3 days ago.”
  • Culprit: “I forgot my voicemail password 3 days ago.”

  • Reported Problem: “A hacker sent a dirty email using my email account!”
  • Possibly Real Problem: “I got drunk at happy hour and sent a dirty email to the colleague I’m infatuated with.”
  • Culprit: Booze and bad decisions.

In all of these situations, the sky is falling for the reporter. I feel sorry for that last person, but we all know that John has a thing for Amy in the UX group, that this was the last straw and now she will be reporting him to HR.

For the others, though, the problem as reported and the problem in reality are a matter of perception; or as Obi-wan said: “you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Customer service and client relationships demand empathy from us. They require us to think like the person we need to help in order to handle relating the solution to the problem in a manner that is at once honest and truthful but also direct.

  • Reported Problem: “NOBODY CAN PRINT!”
  • Real Problem: “I’ve got to get on a plane in 3 hours with this contract for the client to sign and I have to leave for the airport in 15 minutes. I’m already mad at myself because the corrections took so long and I’m tired and frustrated.”
  • Reported Problem: “Everyone’s complaining about the website being slow!”
  • Real Problem: “I’m on my way to China where I have to demo this to a potential investor and I can’t demonstrate our eCommerce capabilities!”

  • Reported Problem: “I have not been able to get my voicemail for weeks!”
  • Real Problem: “I can’t remember my password and there may be an important message from my ex’s lawyer about our custody agreement in there.”

  • Reported Problem: “A hacker sent a dirty email using my email account!”
  • Real Problem: Still booze and bad decisions.

Once we understand the real problem, then it becomes easier to empathize with the situation, and therefore the person. For all of these people, the sky is falling. There is a situation that lies beneath the surface of the technical issue that is driving the person to amplify their own need in an attempt to raise the urgency for the people that might resolve it.

Driving to the core of what is motivating a person to inflate the urgency of their own issue allows for empathy with the situation, which can help de-escalate it even if the situation itself is unsolvable, such as it probably would be for our friend with the layover in Guam or for John, who desperately wishes he had never sent that email.

That, my friends, is why I love Chicken Little: for helping me understand that when someone starts screaming the sky is falling, getting to the core of why they think so often provides a better resolution.

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Stephen Sadowski

Leader focusing on quality, delivery, technical debt management, and leadership education about DevOps and SRE practices