Know when to ask for help with the 15 Minute Rule

Feb 26, 2017 · 4 min read

A fact of startup life is that no matter what team you work on, you’re guaranteed to run into problems you get stuck on.

The challenge is deciding how much time to spend on each problem. Should I try to debug a problem until it’s solved, or should I ask for help when I’m stuck?

Ask yourself: Am I really the best person to solve this problem?

By using the 15 Minute Rule, everyone on your team learns the value of self-sufficiency, but it forces them to reach for the life raft when they really need it.

I was taught the simple rule by Jeff (our Director of Customer Support here at Intercom), when I was a junior customer support engineer. If I was stuck on a particular customer problem, he told me to first take 15 minutes to try find the answer before looking for help. If I still didn’t have an answer after 15 minutes, I had to ask him for help.

The 15 Minute Rule
Take 15 minutes to solve the problem any way you can. However, if you don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone.

You must try for yourself

Taking 15 minutes teaches you the skill of not only knowing what to look for, but how to look for it.

One of the most valuable skills in any customer support or engineering team is navigating internal codebases, documentation and knowing that, more often than not, the answer is there if you take the time to look for it.

Just as importantly, it means that when you do ask for help, you’re at least armed with the full context of the problem at hand. You might have tried looking in the codebase, searched old conversations, searched Slack, and searched through the internal documentation and still come up short. But 90% of the time you’ll be coming with some valuable threads of information for the person who’s helping you out — so you can both solve the problem quicker.

But you also must ask for help

It’s way too easy to disappear down the rabbit hole trying to solve problems; you need to take a step back and ask yourself: “Am I really the best person to solve this problem?”

The fact is — your time is expensive. It might feel good to learn things the hard way — you’ll build valuable skills along the way — but there are no prizes for spending 3 hours on a problem someone else could have solved in 10 minutes.

How the 15 Minute Rule can help the whole team

  • New hires are taught self-reliance
  • But have an all important safety net if they get stuck
  • New hires can get mentored by senior members and see the logic of how they solve problems
  • Senior members get to informally review and give feedback on the team’s work
  • Support staff are upskilled while customers don’t have to wait too long for answers

Even though I no longer work as an engineer (or even know where most of our documentation lives 😀 ), the 15 Minute Rule is still something I use regularly. It teaches you to respect your colleagues’ time, but not to be afraid to get help when you really need it. So give it a try, and let us know if it works for you in the comments.

Written by Martin Brennan, Customer Support Lead at Intercom. Illustration by Shawna X. This post first appeared on the Inside Intercom blog, where we regularly share our thoughts on startups, company culture, product strategy and design.

Intercom makes messaging apps for businesses that help them understand and talk to customers.

Interested in more posts on how to make startup life better? We’ve got you covered.

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