Why Organizational Leaders Often Misdiagnosis Problems

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Every leader wants to fix the problems in their organization. The issue is, that most leaders have a hard time diagnosing those problems correctly.

It isn’t the case of a lack of seeing the problem, experience, or capability to correct it. The real issue is two-fold: being too close to the problem, and looking at the problem the wrong way.

We all know the challenge of being too close to a problem. Examining the symptoms, rather than the cause. Addressing the resulting, downstream issues in a reactionary way, instead of fixing the thing that’s making them occur. Sometimes, this is due to not seeing that root cause, but other times, it’s because that root cause seems too intimidating to tackle. And this is the first issue of being too close to the problem.

When we’re too close to a problem, we see can see the mountain of obstacles and rigor we face in turning it around. So instead, leaders often go to the “easy button”. For example, when different departments aren’t communicating effectively, we put in a process or software system to correct it. Or if a project is stalled, we increase pressure on the team, rollout an architecture of milestones, and impose hard deadlines.

While this might seem all good and well, it’s likely not addressing the real problem. Why are the departments not communicating? Lack of tools (i.e. email, phone, meetings, etc.), is not likely the problem. Why is the project stalled? Awareness of urgency and deadlines is not likely the problem either. It’s something else. Something deeper, which takes us to the issue of looking at the problem in the wrong way.

Leaders often want a “quick fix” to issues because their plate is full, and they are under the gun to “get things done”. So with the rollout of processes, procedures, and pressure, leaders can show that they are “taking action” to address the issue. However, these “solutions” are more frequently than not, ineffective. When leaders don’t take the time to properly diagnose an organizational problem, they end up throwing good money after bad. They look at the problem through the lens of symptoms, rather than causes.

Let’s go back to our example of departments not communicating. While a leader might look at the high-level lack of communication (symptom), the real issue (cause) is likely something much more systemic. The cause could range from internal culturally-driven “silo” behavior to lack of employee empowerment and rampant micromanagement. When leaders jump to conclusions on the cause of an issue, they also jump to conclusions on solutions. People not communicating? Let’s get them a tool to do so – which creates another project, uses more resources, uses more money, and doesn’t fix the real problem.

Leaders need to shift their mindset from “fixing problems” to “diagnosing problems”. It’s not about finding a solution, but understanding the problem completely and holistically first. Too many organizations spend countless hours and dollars trying to fix problems they don’t really have – because it’s not really the problem.

As leaders, we must focus on consciously stepping back from the problem, and take the time to examine it in a new way – with an assessment rather than a solution approach. It will not only save time and money but actually help ensure that the real problem is being corrected.

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson Andrea Belk Olson has a 20-year, field-tested background that provides unique, applicable approaches to creating more customer-centric organizations. A 4-time ADDY® award-winner, she began her career at a tech start-up and led the strategic marketing efforts at two global industrial manufacturers. In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, Andrea speaks to leaders and industry organizations around the world on how to craft effective customer-facing operational strategies to discover new sources of revenues and savings.

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