Creative Leadership

Visible Symptoms Versus Underlying Problems

When leaders of organizations ask me to come in and consult about a problem they’re experiencing, their goal is to make the organization well again. In most cases, they’re trying to understand how to make change happen, but have been shipwrecked due to multiple issues. But in 90% of the cases, they’re only focused on a symptom of a much bigger issue, but don’t realize it.

It’s much like the difference between medical symptoms and disease.  A “symptom” is a physical issue or an expression of the problem. It’s what you see on the surface during a heart attack for instance.  But the real issue you ultimately have to deal with may be obesity, poor eating habits, genetics, or stress. It’s the personal and social problems that cause the bigger issues.

Just ask a nurse – they know the difference.

What you THINK is the problem, may only be a visible symptom of something much more systemic and potentially more deadly. You can treat the symptoms forever, but until you solve the deeper problem, it will never be fixed.

And in a similar way with organizations, you should know the difference when you’re trying to fix a problem.  What you think may be the problem may really just be the visible presence of a deeper network of social, relationship, cultural, and even psychological issues we need to deal with first. As a result, some clients aren’t happy with my answers because it’s not what they expect, since they don’t see the deeper problem, think it’s just too difficult to fix, or worse – it’s the elephant in the room about which no one speaks. As a result, they don’t consider it a priority.

But without fixing the real issues, the symptoms keep coming back over and over again. Then one day, often without warning, you’re dead.

Leaders: The deeper issues matter. They may not seem as important as the in-your-face problem that’s driving you crazy, but to make positive change happen, you have to deal with both.

Let’s start digging.

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