How to diagnose your business symptoms and address the underlying issues

Business Impact: How to diagnose your business symptoms and address the underlying issues
Business Impact: How to diagnose your business symptoms and address the underlying issues

When we go to the doctor, we typically have a clear understanding of the difference between our symptoms and the root cause. We may have a fever and chills – symptoms – but we know that the root cause is likely to be a viral or bacterial infection. We also know that we can treat symptoms, such as a headache, but that the underlying issue is likely to be something very different.

In business, however, we rarely distinguish between symptoms and root causes. Everything is seen as a problem. Hence, the first step in gaining clarity around the business issues you face is to distinguish between symptoms and actual problems. 

Symptom or problem?

Within our business, we may experience internal conflict, accountability issues, profitability issues or even high employee turnover. However, we tend to view all these conditions as problems that need to be addressed. In reality, all these common business issues are symptoms of deeper core issues. They are symptoms because they share one defining characteristic – they are outcomes. 

Conflict is an outcome of poor relationships and communication between people. Profitability issues can be the result of shortfalls in sales, pricing issues, product fit/targeting issues and many other root causes. Turnover can be the outcome of bad leadership, poor hiring practices, or improper focus, to name a few. 

Where there is a similarity between business symptoms and medical symptoms is that multiple symptoms may present themselves at the same time. In the same way a patient may experience fever, chills and congestion, a business may experience turnover, profitability and conflict simultaneously.

And while we can ‘treat’ our business symptoms with training, skills coaching and point solutions, these responses never truly address underlying core issues. For a problem to truly be resolved, the core issues must be addressed.

Seek the core problem

While we can get temporary relief from the ‘analgesic’ benefit of treating our symptoms, it is essential that we ignore the impulse to dismiss the underlying issue simply because the immediate pain has subsided.  When we do this with our health, we often find that the underlying issue worsens and lands us in the hospital. The seemingly innocuous ‘rusty nail’ can lead to lost limbs and lost lives without proper treatment. A painful appendix can be comforted in the short term with pain medications, but if it is not removed, death becomes a real possibility.

The same can be said for the many ‘rusty nails’ we encounter in our businesses. Once a symptom has been identified, it is important to continue the process of discovery until the core problem(s) is identified.

When we find ourselves treating symptoms rather than addressing core issues, there is one singular word that has the power to get us closer to the core problems we face – ‘why?’

Consider this scenario: 

  • The presenting symptom is that several new employees are too busy and unproductive.
  • The reaction is that these employees have a problem with time management.
  • The prescription is to train these employees in time management skills.

Now let’s dig deeper by asking ‘why?’ a few times:

  • Why do the employees need training in time management? Because they are struggling with time management.
  • Why are they struggling with time management? Because they don’t have time to get anything done.
  • Why don’t they have any time to get anything done? Because they spend their whole day in meetings.
  • Why do they spend their whole day in meetings? Because we need to keep everyone abreast of all the projects we have going on.

We could continue this line of questioning further, but it is instructive to think about where this line of questioning may terminate. Is the problem really time management or do we have too many active projects? The problem could be one of prioritisation. The problem could also be a lack of skill running effective meetings. It is not out of the question that the problem could potentially be tied to micromanagement or perhaps even a lack of trust between functional departments. Regardless of the scenario, simply asking ‘why?’ a few times can slow an impulsive jump to conclusions and lead us to a clearer understanding of the core problem.

Apply pressure

We like solving problems and, frequently, we fall in love with our knee-jerk reactions and solutions. This well-studied impulsive response (see Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s 1992 research on prospect theory) is useful when faced with a bear, but less useful when dealing with a business problem. This is why the final step in diagnosing the root cause or core issue is to apply pressure. 

Pressure must be applied to our hypothesis, our facts, our assumptions and last but not least, our emotions. Successful business practitioners will consider their proposed understanding of the problem and expend effort finding ways to test if their hypothesis is correct. Furthermore, facts should be vetted and verified, while assumptions must be accounted for and pressure tested. Finally, it is essential to question how our emotions may have tainted our analysis, data collection and the context under which our analysis was conducted.

Headline image credit: Oluwaseyi Johnson on Unsplash

J Vaselopulos

Jim Vaselopulos is a c-suite-level business advisor and executive coach with a proven record as a leader, strategist and expert in new business development. He is the founder of Rafti Advisors, co-host of The Leadership Podcast and the author of Clarity: Business Wisdom to Work Less and Achieve More

Read more Business Impact articles related to leadership:

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