Monday, September 7, 2020

Fixing Root Causes, not Just Symptoms

 Good leaders focus on solutions, not on blame. Great leaders solve complex problems that make a significant impact without causing more problems.

We live in the world with all sorts of problems; many problems exist because they are either ill-defined or the concept cannot be adequately captured contextually. There are illogical problems or irrational problems. Some problems are the symptom; other problems are perhaps caused by people’s emotional reactions to a set of circumstances of events. 

Believe it or not, the same problem perhaps means different things to different people because they have cognitive differences to perceive things differently - either they have some “unconscious bias” or emotional burdens to understand the situation objectively. Often, people get busy with fixing symptoms, hunting for root cause takes an interdisciplinary understanding and a holistic approach.

Overemphasize “what” and 'how' over digging through the big“why”: Due to unprecedented uncertainty and high velocity, many of today’s problems are over-complex. Too often people may take the easy path, think, and work at a superficial level rather than spend the time to understand what is going on underneath. They overemphasize “how” and keep fixing the symptoms while the same issue may keep coming back again and again. A logical problem-diagnose scenario is to keep peeling back the layers to discover the root cause by asking “WHYs,” and “WHATs” sort of questions that help people get curious about the real problems and analyze diverse situations systematically.

Why things are the way they are matters more when you work from the “problem solving” paradigm. To frame the right problem, problem solvers should gain sufficient knowledge and unique insight to observe deeper and see around the corner, apply the “WHY” staircase technique many times over, using a structured methodology to get to the heart of the matter. Framing the questions to see the relationships between systems; framing the right set of questions helps people become aware of the other "systems" that they interact with and the relationships between these systems: “What is the bigger picture here?" "How is your current problem/goal related to the bigger problems or greater context”? If you understand the origin of the situation, where you want it to go, and how to get there, you would understand the specific “WHYs” to dig through the root causes.

Silo mentality & processes, bureaucratic management style: Fixing many of today’s nonlinear complex problems is a collaborative effort. Silos cause slowness and small-thinking, further create cross-functional communication and collaboration gaps. Silo mentality can start, and flourish, under poor leadership thinking. If functional executives hold silo thinking, practice bureaucratic management style; or if leadership teams do not collaborate as a whole, but act as the sum of pieces, unhealthily competing with each other internally about budgeting, resources, credit, and blames, there is no surprise about business friction to effective problem-solving.

The reality in most organizations though is that the process that is forcibly jammed within an existing organizational design. Each division has its own way to do things and management style. They perhaps fix the symptoms from a functional perspective, without deepening the relationship between parts within that whole and grasping the complexity and interdependence of problems. It further causes some side effects - creating a set of new problems and decreasing business effectiveness. Specialized generalists are in demand to interface effectively with all the specialists to solve complex problems radically.

Ignore the soft factors or invisible elements: Running a business nowadays is an iterative problem-solving continuum. In practice, so many business "managers" focus on the tangibles, but lack an in-depth understanding of the invisible or intangible things that either causes deep problems or they are significant elements in systematic problem-solving. Leadership, communications, or culture, etc, are such invisible factors that directly impact the business mentality and approach to frame and solve the variety of problems. Good leaders focus on solutions, not on blame. Great leaders solve complex problems that make a significant impact without causing more problems. However, with the status quo and inflated ego, often leaders feel that they can only be the solution when in fact they are actually the problem in some situations. They ignore the soft factors or invisible elements in effective problem-solving, just getting them to consider the list of intangibles would be a breakthrough.

If the leader lacks self-awareness of the impact they are having, how can they realistically reflect on their own role in problem-solving? Collective and creative problem solving is a new normal. Business leaders today should rejuvenate a "culture of problem-solving" which incorporates multiple and diverse “soft” components such as value, trust, communication, collaboration, simplicity, adaptability, and continuous improvement, etc, to improve problem-solving maturity. They take advantage of the diversity of ideas as a rich source of connectivity and relationship, to harness all the spontaneity of interaction to arrive at premium solutions that would be otherwise very unlikely.

It is a continuously changing world with “VUCA” new normal, and no organization can afford to stick to its old ways of problem-solving. Trying to fix the wrong cause of a problem will waste time and resources, increase anxiety, and cause chaos. Increasing competition demands some cultural changes where rigid practices may have to give way to flexibility, problem-solving today often requires an interdisciplinary understanding or integral professional competencies to both frame the right problems and solve them in the right way.


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