Figuring out that something is isn’t quite right is a good first step. Putting your finger on what is wrong; however, is much more challenging.

It’s Friday in the office and everyone is delighted to be leaving. People are visibly different – peppy, happy, and lively on the way out the door. If only they were like that at work, it would feel less like, well… work. Monday comes and the employees show up late, if at all. A rash of “Monday Flu” has plagued your business for a few months, but you dismiss it as normal or “the cost of doing business.” It takes a while before you realize – you have a problem.

The response to a problem like this can be seen in the employee behaviors. Avoidance of the problem comes in flavors like: Calling in sick, Burying oneself in unproductive work, long lunches, late arrivals, early departures, and missed deadlines. Other responses like agression, defensiveness, and stubborn refusal can also become the normal behaviors of even the nicest of employee. Getting them, and your business, back into the fast lane requires a solution to a challenge that is difficult to fully understand.

The trick in everday business often times is not simply solving problems, but finding them. Like a doctor working from a series of symptoms, getting to the actual illness or root cause of a problem is the best way to prevent symptoms from cropping up again. While all of this seems simple, in fact, the act of problem identification is much more creative and innovative than you might think.

All business problems have a series of optimal solutions and a series of suboptimal ones. Picking the best one is a function of how well defined your problem is. Defining the problem requires collecting data. Data can be in the form of objective data (hard statistics or metrics); and subjective data (soft statistics such as opinions).

The first step, then in determining root cause is defining the problem. In the beginning, it is easiest to start with the symptoms of the problem and ask questions about them. Understanding more about the symptoms of a problem will lead you down the path to identifying root cause. Don’t be too quick to solve the problem (or declare it solved) at this stage. As you review the symptoms, relationships may emerge that you can’t see without further analysis.

Example: Employee Morale

Generally, employees always want more money. Money is rarely the cause of bad morale in a workforce. Asking deeper open ended questions can reveal problems in the workplace that underpin a whole series of symptoms. Listen for phrases like “I used to love it here” and “For me it was always about the work.”

While seemingly cut and dry, even the having conversations about a problem may be politically, emotionally, or intellectually challenging. Bring in a neutral third party to help when the political, emotional, or intellectual gaps are too large to easily overcome. A facilitated conversation may, in fact, be the solution (or partial solution) to the problem.

Once armed with data, the work of looking at the problem in a creative way begins.

  • What does the data tell you about the situation or problem?
  • What are the human behaviors that contribute to the situation?
  • Are there business systems involved that contribute to the problem?
  • Is the problem the product of poor organization or job design?

Each of these lines of inquiry are whole specialties for consulting firms. Most large firms, in fact, follow this exact data gathering process. They will then take this data and shoehorn it into their standard service offering or whatever approach they use – often disregarding the data itself. The reality is, with most problems – the solution is tailored, unique, and often very simple. Complex problems emerge when you start becoming a medium to large sized company. Even the best complex problems often have a simple solution that emerges when a thorough problem analysis is done.

Try asking for help to identify problems and make employees or participants part of solving the problem by asking them to investigate it. This enables your people to become engaged agents for the change. It also takes some of the Employer/Employee dynamic out of the equation.

Either way, the process outlined above should be your first step in reviewing a problem before heading down the path to a band-aid fix to a symptom. By correctly identifying the real causes of organizational or situational issues, you can make sure you maximize the solution and minimize the effort – a behavior that is at the heart of any entrepreneur.

Be sure to take a look at the next step in the problem solving dynamic.