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Sunday, 12 May 2013

What’s the Problem? Do You Know the Root Cause or is it Just a Symptom?

One of the central features of the Vistage International peer group model is the processing of issues brought to the table by the group members and there is a well trodden process path to help the members come to a satisfactory conclusion with lots of exciting opinions being put forward. 

Frequently it has been said that “there is nothing as much fun as telling other people how to run their business” and that shows in the “this is what you should do” part of the procedure. 

The Vistage process consists of the member describing the issue to the group, or at least, as he/she sees it, and this can take 10-15 minutes provided the facilitator makes sure that there is a minimum of digression.   

Not an easy task as most people in business are so full of information about the company that they can think of all sorts of side issues which they consider important but to the onlooker, seem to be at best irrelevant.  

The presentation of the issue should include such items as “What I have done about it so far”, “How important and significant is it to the business” among others and, most importantly, what the presenter wants the group to contribute. 

After the presentation the group goes into questioning mode to uncover the background to the issue which, by the way, can be a problem, an opportunity, a threat to the business and many more. 

It is very often at this stage that the big change occurs.  I have found it surprising that so many issues brought to the table are really operational matters disguised as strategic issues when, in fact, many of them are merely symptoms of perhaps a malaise when in fact the real issue is much deeper down. 

The questioning then needs to drill down to find out whether the issue as the presenter sees it is an accurate assessment of the situation or whether in fact it is a symptom of something deeper and more significant. 

In short, it is a matter of deciding whether the issue is a symptom of something deeper and if so, then what is the underlying cause?  Judicious questioning should elicit the answer. 

Understanding the cause of an issue is not always a happy position to be in.  For example, it may be that someone in the business is beginning to have behavioural problems which impact colleagues to the detriment of the smooth operation of the business. 

Careful use of the “why” question and much more of the “and what else” will take the presenter through the onion peeling process whereby the group gets closer and close to the real cause which is often hidden under a pile of irrelevant but comforting and understandable “stuff”. 

I recall in one such instance a somewhat acerbic group member looked at the presenter and said “This isn’t the issue at all.  YOU are the issue and the way that you handle things!” which was quite a challenge. 

In the end the presenter accepted that he had probably handled the matter badly and the group could then move on to give their opinions as to the best way to solve the problem.  

There are many techniques which can help to drill down to find the underlying cause and RCA or Root Cause Analysis (learn more) as widely used in the NHS is probably the best known. 

It is up to the leader to make sure that issues and problems are handled in such a way as to determine the root cause, to examine what action can be taken and what the desired outcome looks like.  In that way, it is feasible to take sensible and logical action to initiate valid change.
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