Do you know the root cause of your biggest problem right now?
By: Lynda McNutt Foster
Lynda, the email started. It was from someone who had graduated a few years ago from our leadership program. I remember them as smart and capable and I had heard they had been recently promoted. Here’s what they asked me after some niceties:
I’m stuck. The new position I’m in now is really fast-paced. I had relied previously on just jumping in and doing things when they didn’t get done, but now I don’t have the time to do that anymore. The progress I’ve made on being a better delegator has been good, but I need to get much better at it in order to keep up with the expectations that the organization has set for me and my department. Do you have any tools or suggestions that will help me over this hump?
He had been through our course, so I sent him the Deliberate Delegation form to help him remember and more effectively apply it. The result you are getting usually is based on what was put in to begin with. That process for delegating is a system that is effective at creating the right flow to communication and steps for deadlines to be met and people to work well together. (Here it is if you haven’t seen it before.)
Starting by looking at the beginning steps of a system will help you get to the root cause. By stepping back and looking at the process, called systems thinking, can solve problems permanently, instead of temporarily. With each change you make to the “system” or process you are setting in motion a series of events that will either lead towards the outcome or output you want or away from it.
When something goes wrong, the best leaders first think about their systems. They observe situations, learn all they can about them, take the “people part” out, first, and see if they can determine what may have created the problem in the first place. They ask themselves questions like:
- What might be flawed in the process or system that could have led to the result we are currently getting?
- What is the root cause of the issue we are facing?
- Have we learned enough about the different aspects of the situation so that we can determine the root cause?
For instance, if your meetings are consistently running over the time allotted, it’s possible that the root cause could be the way the meeting is started or the fact that there isn’t an agenda, or the agenda is adhered to, or too many people were invited to the meeting, or perhaps that the meetings aren’t starting on time.
Systems Thinking encourages you to look at the bigger picture, thereby providing sustainable long-term, as opposed to, short-term solutions to inherent problems.
Systems thinking is the last of the 5 disciplines for leaders that are outlined in Peter Senge’s book and why he named it, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of a Learning Organization.
So critical is systems thinking that when you grasp and apply the concept it has the power to change the way you approach every problem you, your team, or your organization faces now or in the future. It is the fulcrum, meaning that without it, the other 4 disciplines would fail to be effective. The other 4 are:
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
You can find previous articles with a full overview of the book here, a focus on personal mastery and mental models here, and the specifics on how to apply shared vision and team learning here.
The next time you are facing a problem approach it with the following in mind:
- Don’t use shortcuts for systemic issues. Make time to analyze the situation thoroughly. Talk to and observe the key stakeholders so that you can have accurate and enough information to have learned which part of the system might be broken.
- Don’t just look at the effect, search hard for the root cause. Pulling out the weed above the soil doesn’t get rid of the thing that will simply make it sprout up again soon. (I know this…anyone know a great landscaper?)
- Small adjustments can sometimes make a big difference. If you, or someone you know, is very familiar with the system, a small pivot can sometimes change the output in a pretty major way. Think about having a meeting where no cell phones are allowed. That one, small, change can affect the amount of attention and participation everyone at the meeting is able to have. The output can change dramatically since you would be much more likely to have everyone’s highest level thinking and engagement.
- Reward experience. The more you, or your team, can analyze the system the easier it’s going to be to spot errors. This is one of the main reasons why keeping your highest potentials, and lowering your turnover rate with them, can have a big effect on how quickly problems can be overcome in your workplace.
- Look for how the problem might be effecting other areas and the organization as a whole, perhaps. The flaws in one team’s performance, for instance, can be effecting another’s ability to hit deadlines for instance.
- Don’t play the blame game. This will damage morale and many times it will cover up the important issues you need to be focused on to permanently eliminate the problem.
The key is to become a learning organization. To become one, you may have to overcome one or more of the following issues:
- Internal politics
- Exclusive Power
- Lack of time for learning
- Difficulty finding the right balance between doing and being
- Mistakes that are repeated over and over again
- Challenges in leading a learning organization which are exhibiting things like openness, foresight, effective communication skills and creativity. It’s about being a teacher and guide to those that you work with. Being able to set expectations and clear goals while communicating a common purpose and shared vision. A good leader of a learning organization sets the example of others to follow. (No pressure!)
START HERE. If you’re looking for a place to begin this work, ask yourself this question:
What are your habits when you are faced with a problem?
Do you look for the quickest solution possible?
Do you enter the situation with curiosity to learn other’s perspectives?
Do you search for the root cause?
Simply pause and take a deep breath the next time you are faced with a problem and observe your pattern for solving it. Perhaps a small change in how you approach it or what you ask yourself or others about the problem could make a big difference. Improving your problem solving abilities could be as simple as changing the way you think about it in the first place.