Are You a Symptom-Chaser, or Problem-Solver?

How Healthy is Your Organization- (2)

You know when you aren’t feeling all that great, but you have a lot going on, so you sort of brush it off and hope it just goes away? But it never does? In fact, in almost all cases, brushing it off actually makes you feel worse in the long-run. Have you had that happen?

It was 2000, and I had been working on a client site all day and scheduled to do a huge recruiting event at my employer’s headquarters afterwards. I wasn’t feeling well, but decided I’d stick it out – this was an important event and there were several highly skilled (difficult to fill) positions we needed to hire against. “I’ll be fine, I’ll just drink some more water”, I kept telling myself. I stayed the course, finished the entire evening, but by the time I returned home I had a fever of 104. I ended up being bedridden for 3 weeks! Three long, long weeks – if only I had paid attention to the symptoms earlier, I could have taken some preventative actions, right? But I didn’t, and as a result, I suffered the consequences.

Organizations are very similar. They can keep pushing forward, although there are some very obvious signs of “something wrong”. Sometimes organizations stop and try to address the symptoms themselves, instead of digging into the actual cause of those symptoms. In doing so, they also suffer negative consequences. The only real way to solve organizational symptoms are to first dig deeper to discover the root cause of the problem. Once you know what the actual problem is, you can focus your organizational assets (people, money, knowledge, equipment, etc.) in fixing it. Once fixed, the symptoms will also vanish (poof!).

How do you know if you are addressing the symptom, or the actual problem, though?

Much like the example above, you can keep asking “why” to get to the root cause. See the below example to see exactly how this might work:


You have an amazingly powerful organizational strategy, but for some reason, your organization just isn’t making any real traction in achieving it. Or maybe there really is progress, yet, you can’t actually quantify it in a manner that lets you knowprecisely how far along you’ve come, and how much further you have to go. Not making progress, or not being able to precisely measure your progress, are both symptoms. We know this because we could ask ourselves the “5-Why’s”, as follows:

– WHY are we not making progress? Because our personnel keep experiencing setbacks in efforts they expect to have already completed, but still haven’t (or the leadership-driven deadlines aren’t being met).

WHY are they experiencing continuous setbacks? Because every time they approach their work effort a particular way, another element in the organization approaches that same work, but a different way, and they have to work out who is really doing the work, and how it is going to be done. Obviously, both elements can’t do the same thing – only one needs to do the work.

– WHY don’t these organizational elements approach things the same way and understand who is supposed to be doing what? These are two different elements within the same organization, but they both have their own leadership within the larger organization, who are providing different direction to each. Unintentional internal conflict is created without the leadership team even realizing it.

– WHY is the leadership providing different direction to each organizational element? There really isn’t a big plan laid out that specifically states who is responsible for what, and how those different pieces precisely fit together.

– WHY isn’t there a plan laid out that has specificity in roles, responsibilities, and expected outcomes that feed into achieving the bigger organizational strategy?  ** Good point. I guess our REAL problem is that we don’t really know how to develop a strategic plan in a way that we can truly implement it without running into so many obstacles and challenges that slow us down.

The premise behind “The 5 Why’s” is that, typically by the 5th “why” you get to the actual reason behind the problem. As the example above shows, not achieving the strategy in a timely manner is a symptom (likely not the only symptom!), but we learned that the real problem is the lack of skilled and experienced leadership to ask the right questions, and lack of skilled and experienced project managers who truly know how to…

  • Decompose the strategy into more tactical work packages
  • Estimate the activities needed to accomplish successful delivery of those work packages
  • Estimate human resource needs (by quantity, skill set and skill level), as well as equipment needs
  • Estimate time (schedule) needs
  • Sequence the order of activities (what needs to happen first, second, third, etc.), resulting in an understanding of dependencies among the various activities

Bottom line? Always remember that, whenever there is smoke (symptom), there is surely fire (problem). Don’t waste time and energy in putting out the smoke when you should be doing whatever you can to find and put out that fire!

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