Organizations come in all shapes and sizes. But they all tend to develop complex, multileveled issues over time—wicked problems that are hard to solve because they are hard to identify, diagnose, and define. Those issues start to drag at the organization, making it harder to circulate information, coordinate work, and get things done.
Imagine that you’re not feeling well, so you go to see the doctor. “What symptoms do you have?” the doctor asks. You list the symptoms: a bad headache, a high fever, a sore throat, and you feel weak. As the doctor listens, she makes notes.
As the patient, you’ve been trying to treat the symptoms. For instance, you’ve taken aspirin for the headache, you’ve been drinking coffee to raise your energy levels, and you’ve been popping cough drops for your sore throat. But treating the symptoms isn’t useful because you haven’t addressed the underlying illness.
What’s the illness? Your doctor should be able to figure it out just from listening to you and examining you. That is, she sees the relationship among the symptoms and determines the underlying illness—in this case, the flu. With that information, she can recommend a course of action that actually attacks the illness, not just the symptoms. As you look at the problems you see in the organization, you may be tempted to treat the symptoms. Instead, think like a doctor; look at all the symptoms you can find then figure out what they tell you about the underlying illness. Or imagine you’re enjoying your favorite detective show: CSI or, maybe, Scooby Doo. As you watch, you examine the clues that the TV detective finds: the blood stains on the carpet, the laundry stub in the victim’s pocket, or the suction cups hidden in the fruit bowl.
You’re not collecting the clues just to have them; you’re trying to fit them together in a way that allows you to solve the mystery. Even if all signs point to the same suspect—especially if that happens—you look at other possibilities. Eventually, the culprit will shake their fist and complain that they could have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids and their dog. As you look at the obvious, visible problems in the organization, don’t think of them as the mystery. They’re just clues. Think like a detective; gather all the clues you can, then figure out how they fit together to help you solve the real mystery.
If you’re thinking like a doctor or a detective, you’re thinking systematically. And that’s critical if you’re going to truly address the underlying issues in the organization. Unfortunately, people often don’t approach the issues this way. They mistake the symptoms for the disease and the clues for the mystery. Consequently, they try piecemeal solutions that don’t quite address the entire issue. So how do you approach the organization systematically? You need an approach that will let you honestly gather different perspectives on the organization, cross-check them against each other, catalogue the symptoms, and inductively develop a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying issues at play within the organization. Once you understand the illness, you can prescribe the cure.