Book review: Are your lights on?

This is the first in a series of book reviews I hope to do.  The books are mostly high-quality and deserve better cover shots than the ones I have for them (maybe someday I’ll get a scanner!)

First up is Are Your Lights On? How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg, reprinted in 1990 by Dorset House Publishing.



Organizations (and the problem solvers within them) often make expensive mistakes by solving the wrong problem, solving the wrong person’s problem, and several other ways.  The book explores important questions that should be answered before jumping to a solution.

The book’s title should not be understood to be asking the question rudely; rather, the question all at once:

  • Is the solution to a puzzle in the book;
  • Is a good reminder to would-be problem solvers;
  • Illustrates quite well the point of chapter 10, “Mind your meaning”!

The Good

Eye-opening: First and foremost, the book got me to think about seeing problems from a variety of angles and perspectives, and it helped me see that how you perceive and state a problem has a big impact on what solutions you drive toward.

Captured and maintained my interest: The book starts right out with an engaging problem that drew me in and helped me experience the issues the authors want to address.  By about the third page of text, I was already being helped to see flaws in my thinking process.

Accessible: The book maintains a light, entertaining style throughout.

Quick read: This book can be read in a couple of evenings.

Covers a wide breadth of issues: In just over 150 pages, the authors deal with flawed assumptions, various forms of miscommunication, moral dilemmas, when you’re the problem, whether we really want to solve the problem, and many other facets.

Connects with real life: The authors demonstrate a grizzled understanding of human nature, and their advice reflects that understanding.  At no point do you worry, “That sounds nice, but do people really operate that way?”

The Bad

The bad in the book is in the form of some undertones.  It’s hard to tell if these undertones are really there or if it’s a misperception on my part, but I thought I’d report them as  I saw them:

Low view of personal integrity? This is not seen constantly throughout, but it pops up in chapter 16’s “whatever works” philosophy suggesting that certain classes of problems be solved by trickery — playing deceptive games with one’s superiors — and maybe also in chapter 12, “The campus that was all spaced out”.

Tendency toward a contemptuous tone toward non-technical management: Though addressing many mistakes technical problem solvers commonly make, the authors tend to have a compassionate tone toward these mistakes and a tendency toward a contemptuous tone toward those in management positions… with the notable exception of chapters 14-15, which almost led me to delete this section (but not quite!)


This was a really eye-opening book for me.  I recommend it as worthwhile  reading for anyone in a position with problem-solving aspects to it.  For software development organizations, I wouldn’t limit its applicability to the official requirements-gatherers for product features; anyone who needs to understand requirements should understand the concepts this book addresses.

Have you read the book?  What do you think of it?


1 thought on “Book review: Are your lights on?

  1. Thanks, Daniel, for your generous review of our book. I’m especially grateful for the “Bad” section, which has caused me to reflect on whether I still have these issues in my more recent books. I’m definitely impatient with bad managers–we know better by now–but I’ve also become much more appreciative of really good managers.

    As for tricking your manager, I think we were trying to say that if you’re not a very competent manager, people can always trick you, so don’t fool yourself. I guess we didn’t say that very well. We need feedback like yours to learn to communicate such points more clearly. So, thanks again.

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