What's the Real Problem?

Have you ever had a leak, repaired it, only to find the drip, drip, drip showing up someplace else? Or have you recognized a familiar employee engagement problem, and breathed an immediate, “Oh, I’ve seen this movie before” sigh of relief and began to apply your time-tested know-how, only to realize the sequel was far different from the original?

When Sebastian was little, our dining room chandelier started leaking. It didn’t take us long to realize the drip was related to the tub on the floor above. We caulked. We tightened up the faucets. The problem seemed to stop, until one day, it didn’t, and the water dripped down right into our lasagna. This time, the water all over the bathroom floor gave it away. Our leaky lighting was a result of over zealous bath-time fun. A quick conversation on bathing etiquette, and we never had the problem again.

So the other day when the recessed lighting in my new home office started to weep, I knew just what to do. “Sebastian, stop it!” “But Mom…. “of course he was right. As it turns out, the builders had missed an important piping connection.

Getting to the Root Cause of the Problem

What people bring to you is likely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Pause. Get curious. Ask questions. Get the relevant facts. Here are three specific questions you can ask to help identify the real problem and not waste valuable time addressing symptoms:

1. What is different from what you expected?
In The Rational Manager, Charles Kepner and Benjamin Trego identify a problem as “a deviation from some standard of performance.” Simply put, what didn’t go the way you expected?

2. What has not changed?
This is a critical step that most managers skip altogether. When you identify a problem, it is helpful to know what has not changed. This helps eliminate issues that needn’t concern you.

3. Have I faced a similar issue before?

What’s the same? What’s different about this scene?

4. Why? Why? Why?
Once you’ve limited the problem to what it is and what it is not, look for causes by asking, “Why?” You will often have to ask several times.

You can waste incredible amounts of time in vain attempts to solve the wrong problem. Managers who win well don’t leap in with solutions right away. When they are presented with a problem, they pause, ask questions, and work to identify the real issue.

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Posted in Results & Execution, Winning Well and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

10 Comments

  1. You are so right to recognize the importance of getting to the root cause of a problem before leaping to solve it. In my problem solving programs we spend the most amount of time defining the problem accurately. Huge mistakes are made in organizations and teams when people start to solve an issue which turns out isn’t the real issue at all. Glad you got your problem fixed!

    Love your stories Karin!

  2. Great article, Karin!

    Asking questions is perhaps the best way to unlock what is truly going on…questions allow us to reframe the issue and the right ones can allow us to see things in a totally different light. Often, that change in perspective is all we need to move forward!

  3. Excellent points to resolve chronic problems in organizations and to avoid recurrence of same in future.
    People in organizations sometime make costly mistakes / blunders in haste, due to inadequate trainings, not following the standard procedures / instructions and not learning from the past.

  4. Great stuff, Karin! It seems the real problem typically comes down to people being people. 🙂 My favorite questions that dig into the WHY are, “What critical information is (name) missing, and what do I need to do to communicate better?” and, “What emotional needs are not being met?” When I taught classes on behavior, I always used the iceberg analogy. The problem that you see is the top of the iceberg, but the root of the problem is the huge chunk of ice that lies beneath the surface!

    • Liza, Thanks so much for extending the conversation. That’s a great question… “what critical information is___ missing?” Imagine the possibilities if more people were asking that?

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