When Knowing the “Root Cause” is Not Enough

In our organization diagnostic work we often compare finding the root cause of an organization issue to finding the root cause of an illness. This medical metaphor has recently become even more useful because the medical industry in North America is starting to hold itself responsible for outcomes, rather than just procedures.  As a result, the scope of potential root causes that practitioners are being asked to consider is expanding to include patient behavior. In other words, in this new model simply knowing the biological reason for a disease or condition is not enough.

This dynamic already applies to organization diagnosis. It is not enough to just know what is “wrong” with an organization.  Effective organization diagnosis requires understanding leader and management thought processes, or “the organization’s logic.”

For example, you might determine that low employee engagement scores are caused by managements’ unwillingness to share in significant decision-making.  However, the true root cause may lie specifically in the leader’s logic:  “The risks to my career are too great to allow employees to share in the decision making.  I can’t risk my career just to make them feel better.”  The data needed to make this deeper diagnosis is found in the assumptions and logic of the leaders.

To this end, we propose that sound organization diagnosis requires more than just gathering common organization data.  It requires understanding clients’ assumptions.

A Case Study in Assumption

A few years ago, a Senior Vice President of Marketing (I will call her Shay) asked me to orchestrate the launch of a marketing skills development program.  Shay had concluded that her marketers needed greater skills in the 4 P’s.  She asked me to engage the best marketing educational resources and launch a training program within 90 days.

Before springing into action, I wanted to be sure that the training program was the right solution. My first objective was to gain greater understanding of the client herself, specifically in three areas:

  • Her pain or aspiration
  • Personal impact
  • Her assumptions

To begin I asked, “What would have to change to indicate to you that the training has made a difference?”

She replied, “Our revenue would have to climb by over X% by the end of the year.”

My next question was direct. “Are you getting heat from the CEO for missed targets?”

“A lot of heat,” she said.

I quickly concluded that her real need was not more marketing skills but increased revenues.

Then I asked a sensitive question.  I knew she wanted to be the next CEO and that driving performance was essential to achieving this goal.  Instead of asking the question directly, I simply stated the obvious and allowed her to answer non-verbally. “If the revenue slide isn’t reversed, your career is going to take a hit?”  She simply nodded.  I had gained insight into what truly hurt and how she perceived its impact upon her.

Now that I understood her pain and its personal impact, I needed to understand her assumptions, which were driven by her logic around cause and effect.  For example, she assumed that if she increased marketing skills, revenue would climb.  Knowing her assumptions was critical because she would filter data and suggestions through them.

Client assumptions are part of the diagnostic data, and they, more often than facts, drive clients’ behavior. The trick is knowing how to uncover them.

 A Simple—but Powerful—Technique for Uncovering Assumptions

One of the best techniques for revealing assumptions is a “would” question.  Most people are probably familiar with “what” and “why” questions.  Examples of these are  “What keeps you awake at night?  Why is revenue down?”  And “Why do you believe marketers lack the skills?”  These are good questions that will provide important information and even insight into assumptions.  However, a “would” question helps a client articulate cause and effect.

A “would” question usually mentions the cause or the effect and requires the client to make an assumption about one or the other.  For example, I asked her, “How would marketers behave if they had the desired skill set?” This question went beyond simply asking why she thought they needed the training.  It required her to project her assumptions into the future and provided insight into how she perceived the impact of training.  It asked her to answer the hypothetical question, “If we do this, what might the results be?”

In response to my question, she talked at length about integrated marketing behaviors and the ability of the marketers to make effective decisions in all of the marketing P’s. I knew that her marketers were well seasoned and that many came from top-notch companies like General Mills and Proctor and Gamble. As such, they were almost certainly well steeped in the four P’s. I didn’t want to challenge her directly, because her assumptions may not have allowed her to truly consider another perspective right then.  So, I asked another “would” question, “If after the marketers receive this training and revenues don’t increase, what would you then assume is the issue?”

Like many leaders, she had a limited set of intervention tools or causes. This important question caused her to pause and reconsider her own assumptions.

Achieving Organizational Health through Effective Diagnostics

One can say, “Everything becomes an extension of our assumptions.”  Therefore, uncovering assumptions is key to understanding the logic behind choices in an organization.

You have probably heard the phrase, “Everything becomes a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer.” I hear “Change the compensation” so often I wonder if leaders think inadequate compensation is the only disease and changing it is the only cure.  For other leaders the classic cause might be “structure” or “training.”  Why is this?  Because people tend to see the world’s diseases through the remedies they know—not necessarily the root causes.

The body is so complex that medical diagnosis is often precarious and iterative. While no diagnostic routine is perfect, examining patient behavior provides an expanded view into root causes of disease, which a practitioner can leverage to save lives. So it is in organization diagnosis and change. By considering the impact of individual leaders’ assumptions on a complex system and asking the critical questions it takes to uncover them, an organization design practitioner can help save organizations and careers.

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