Treating the Symptoms

Imagine you’ve lived in your home for a while. Over time you’ve noticed a few things need maintenance and repair.

One time you notice that your dining table isn’t level. It isn’t off by much, but if you set a marble on the table, it slowly and reliably rolls off.

You think, “no big deal” and you put a little bit of cardboard under a leg to level the table.

Some time goes by and later you notice in that same room there is a small crack in the paint on one wall. It isn’t huge, but it is noticeable.

You think, “no big deal” and you patch the crack and touch up the paint.

Some time goes by and later you notice in the same room that one of the doors sticks when you try to open it. The door still works fine, but the sticking is annoying.

You think, “no big deal” and you shim the door hinges and sand one corner of the door, and everything is fixed.

Some time goes by and later you notice that in a different room, a new room, the table isn’t level, there is a small crack in the wall and the door sticks.

What do you do?

If you think like many organizations, you approach this problem by trying to organize to solve it. You say, “It is clear that the maintenance of this house/organization requires the leveling of tables, the patching of cracks, and the unsticking of doors. We should ensure that we have a team of people with the right expertise to solve these problems.”

You begin to hire table-levelers, crack-patchers, and door-unstickers. They get to work fixing the next room while you get to work checking through the other rooms to find the other areas that need attention.

You realize that teams can’t be successful within organizations unless they have goals to achieve and metrics to measure. You establish targets and KPIs for these teams. And you generate reports to provide transparency into the progress of the teams.

You realize that some people may naturally be good table-levelers, crack-patchers, and door-unstickers, but in an organization you can’t leave that to chance. You need to know for sure that the people doing the work have the right skills. So you create training plans and learning paths. You send some people out to become certified table-levelers, crack-patchers, or door-unstickers.

You realize that within an organization people won’t be satisfied for very long unless they can feel a sense of advancement. So you create job grades and levels so they feel there are career paths from entry level to advanced/professional table-leveler, crack-patcher, or door-unsticker.

You’ve created teams and a support structure for those teams. You find that the teams perform very effectively and that they’re able to level the tables, patch the cracks and unstick the doors quickly and effectively. And this is good, because there is no shortage of work. It seems like every day, you’re finding another room or area that needs repair.

And, you’re so glad you created teams and a support structure for them because you’re finding that some of the first rooms/areas you fixed have new cracks to patch and more doors to unstick.

You think, “Now I’m really glad we have teams of professionals to fix these problems, since it is obvious that to maintain a house/organization well, these types of problems will keep coming up, or keep coming back.”

Fortunately, you were a forward-thinking leader. You saw the issue, predicted the future, and organized to solve the problem.

You’re feeling good about how you’ve addressed the problems and you share your approach with a friend who lives in the next house/organization over. They share with you the story of how they faced a similar problem.

They said, “We noticed the same problems in our house. After we leveled a few tables, patched a few cracks and unstuck a few doors we sat down and asked ourselves why we kept seeing the same problems showing up in different areas, and why we kept seeing the same problems re-emerging in areas we’d already fixed.”

They continued, “We asked, ‘How are these problems related? What single source might be causing different types of problems to emerge and re-emerge in different areas?'”

They said, “After some thinking we began to wonder if the foundation of the house wasn’t level. If the foundation of the house was cracked or wasn’t level, that would cause all the problems we were seeing. We checked it out and, sure enough, our foundation was cracked and not level. It wasn’t too hard or expensive for us to fix the problem once we’d identified the real issue.”

“Now that we’ve fixed the root cause, we no longer have tables that aren’t level, walls with cracks, or doors that stick. Or, if we do start to see these issues, we immediately recognize them as systemic problems where we need to fix the root cause, not the symptoms.”

You begin to have that sinking feeling in your stomach. That ‘pit’ that lets you know you’ve made a big and expensive mistake.

You solved the problems in front of you and you did it very well. You created highly effective teams, processes, measures, and systems to address these issues and to keep addressing these issues with a minimum of effort.

But fundamentally, you weren’t solving the right problem.

Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.

Russell Ackoff

How often do we fix the symptom and not the cause? How often do we get busy solving what is in front of us without asking why it is in front of us?

Creating highly-trained teams of people and helping them to establish processes, measures, career advancement, etc. is critically important and one of the key responsibilities of a good manager within an organization.

However, if you’re creating effective teams that can efficiently solve the wrong problem, you may be seen as a good manager, but you aren’t being a good leader.

“The difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager focuses on doing things right, while a leader focuses on doing the right things.”

Peter Drucker

So how do you identify if you’re treating the symptom or the cause?

When you encounter a problem, challenge, or opportunity ask yourself a few questions:

What are all the factors that lead to this type of problem?

Many times we encounter a problem (cracked wall), identify a likely cause (general wear-and-tear and the need for recurring maintenance), and proceed to create a solution based on the that likely cause.

For example, “I see a crack in this wall. Well, the house is old and old houses require maintenance. This must be part of maintaining a house due to usage and age. So just like you have to replace a roof or repaint the exterior of a house, I guess you have to patch cracks from time to time.”

We should keep brainstorming on what are all the factors that could lead to a problem, rather than simply looking for the first or most likely cause.

Seeing multiple potential causes increases the chance that we will identify the right problem. Only after we have the right problem can we begin to solve the right problem in the right way.

Where else does this problem exist? What pattern is this problem a part of?

If we perceive a problem as existing only within the room/area we’re responsible for, then we’re likely to fix the problem in isolation. We are less likely to look for the systemic cause of a pattern of problems.

If I fix the problem in front of me, will it decrease the likelihood of seeing more problems like this in the future?

If the problem exists independently and is not part of a larger pattern, then fixing it won’t have any impact on future problems. Sometimes this is the case.

But when you ask this question, you increase the chances that you’ll identify the pattern leading to the problem. Then you can solve for the pattern, rather than the individual problem.

Who else do I know that is fixing similar problems?

Talk to your peers in other areas and find out if your problem is unique. The sooner you can identify that your problem is rooted in something outside your area, the sooner you can begin working on the systemic solution.


I’ll close with another quote from Russel Ackoff as it sums up the issue at hand very well.

The righter you do the wrong thing, the wronger you become.

Russell Ackoff1

Always make sure before you begin to solve a problem that you’ve got the right problem. And recognize that many of the problems we see aren’t problems that exist in isolation…they exist as part of a pattern. If we and our organizations have limited time, money, and energy, then shouldn’t we try to identify and fix the pattern?

If we recognize the pattern we get to fix the problem once. If we don’t recognize the pattern, then the reward is getting to fix the same problems over, and over, and over. And who wants to do that?

  1. Dr. Ackoff said this many times over the years. Here is an example. ↩︎