It’s Not a Silver Bullet, It’s Systemic Diagnosis

What do you do when an aspect of your business doesn’t go as planned or in the way you had hoped? As executives, we’ve all experienced this. What does it take to properly diagnose the issue and ultimately develop a solution? Where do you start in order to get back on track?

Most of the time, we jump to the usual suspects—an underperforming individual, a bad process, a bottleneck in the organization. Maybe you refer back to what you did at a previous company or implement a solution based on something you heard at a conference you attended. While these solutions seem natural and logical enough, they may not help identify and treat the root cause of an issue or help you get your organization sustainably back on track.

As business leaders begin to diagnosis issues within their organization, it is alluring to think there is a simple solution that can be implemented to fix the problem(s)—a “take two of these and call me in the morning” kind of solution that is the universal fix for tough business problems. Sound a little too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is (many times).

Good diagnosis requires that leaders be more systematic (than is sometimes the case) in their approach as they identify and analyze the problems and eventually apply their solution. Those engaged in diagnosis cannot hope to uncover root causes without a systematic process that considers the many angles and complexities that reflect the true interdependencies of the organization.  Even when the root causes are found, there is a deeper level of diagnosis that needs to happen—understanding the assumptions (the ways of thinking) that are shaping the current results and performance.  Without understanding the thinking behind behavior and performance, it is difficult to fundamentally change behavior and performance.

One way to approach organizational problems more systemically is to categorize problems into different levels. At AlignOrg Solutions, we usually define problems as originating from one of three levels: individual, group, and organization.

  • At the individual level, the issue is usually isolated to one or a few individuals. Often, these issues stem from a lack of motivation, a skills gap, or a cultural misalignment.
  • Group issues usually involve an intact team of people but not the entire organization. Group-level issues often originate from how the team is organized to perform work or from the relationships within the group (e.g., how conflicts are handled, how decisions are made, etc.).
  • Organizational issues are generally much more wide-spread, systemic, and often affect the majority of the organization in one way or another. These issues center around misaligned choices within the organization and discrepancies among organizational systems like strategy, work, structure, metrics, people, rewards, culture, etc.

When trying to discover the root cause of any issue, it is helpful to analyze your data through the lens of these three levels and assess whether performance issues exist at one of these levels or perhaps at more than one of these levels.

For example, if there is a quality issue at a manufacturing plant, you might first turn toward the individuals responsible for making the product. As you suspected, you might find a skills gap. If you were to stop there and start retraining those individuals, you might miss other important factors that are impacting results like a misaligned reward plan, ineffective leadership practices, or difficult work processes.  Any of these other issues could be the root cause of the performance gap or at least contributors.  One-dimensional solutions only work on one-dimensional problems.  In this case, without further diagnosis you won’t know and can’t guarantee that your selected solution (training) will fix the problem.

Instead of stopping after finding a problem at the individual level, let’s assume you did more investigation. As a result, you find that not only did the operators lack the skills for delivering quality, but everyone in the factory lacked the skills including the manufacturing plant leadership.

What might have seemed like an individual or even group issue in the beginning now manifests itself as an organization-level problem that necessitates a different solution. If no one has the necessary skills, it might be an issue with training, the quality process itself, or perhaps the hiring process. With more data gathering and analysis at the organization level, you can discover the root cause, and, more importantly, develop a solution that will fix the true issue rather than a symptom of it.

This example demonstrates that without systematic diagnosis that considers all levels, the true cause of the issue may remain hidden. If a business leader had merely replaced a number of employees at the manufacturing plant, the issue would most likely have persisted.

Good diagnosis is not about finding the magic solution that will work in every situation. Instead, it requires business leaders to be more systemic and consider how a symptom may be the result of deeper problems stemming from any one or more than one of the three levels (individual, group or organization).

Without a systematic approach to diagnosis, business leaders may never expose the root cause of an issue and be able to recalibrate their organization to achieve their desired results. In many ways, diagnosis is where true organization alignment begins and requires business leaders to regularly monitor and analyze their organization for issues that may indicate potential misalignments. Proper diagnosis is a big part of organization alignment and helps businesses spend their time and money on root issues rather than chasing solutions that won’t deliver desired results.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not a Silver Bullet, It’s Systemic Diagnosis”

  1. This is a fundamental skill and yet many people either lack the structure to do it well and/ or the time to enable a robust sense check. You need to make the time and there is support out there to understand how to do diagnosis well!

    • Diagnosis is both art and science. You must have a good diagnostic framework and the skills to ask the right questions. It will be great to see more and more practitioners and leaders strengthening their diagnostic capabilities.


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