Does your organization behave like many individuals when it comes to problem resolution, or do you have a proper health care system in place to manage issues? Many people (myself included) have a tendency to treat their symptoms with over the counter drugs or with non-medical remedies passed down through our families, even when the symptoms appear to be chronic. Even when we visit the doctor we often deny the cause of the issue and request treatment for the symptom as we see it. In the same way many organizations fail to or ignore deep seated diseases and instead spend considerable time and resources focusing on the treatment of the symptoms.

Seem crazy? Maybe so, but unfortunately it is also far more common than we would like to admit.

Let’s use a common smoker as an example:

Most (if not every) mornings our friendly smoker Joe wakes up with constrained breathing and in many cases a dull headache from the previous days batch of inhaled poison. Joe heads outside and lights up which causes him to cough and sputter, but as a result of his coughing his lungs succeed in loosening the phlegm and other pollutants that have settled over his period of sleep.

This is the worst case of treating the symptoms because Joe is actually using more of the root problem to “cure” his symptoms.

Let’s assume Joe gets sick of this routine and heads to his doctor for help. Unfortunately it’s extremely unlikely that Joe is seeking help to address his root problem (smoking), more likely he’ll ask for help with his breathing issues. By framing the problem around his symptoms Joe gets diagnosed with asthma and prescribed a daily inhaler which will help his lungs compensate for his daily abuse.

Joe has successfully masked the symptoms of his root problem at this point, but having done that he likely has made himself more susceptible to a long life of symptom free smoking… until of course the emphysema and lung cancer set in.

Too often our organizations behave exactly like Joe. Programs and projects are consistently delivering behind schedule or over budget because of scope issues, so more senior resources and program managers are brought in to “clean up” the problem (the inhaler method). Business units have difficulty making decisions on scope early in a project, so an “agile” methodology is adopted to make a lack of early decision making part of the system rather than a problem (the morning smoke method).

Ultimately the root cause of the chronic problems in delivery are related to poor planning and scope definition at the start of the project, but rather than addressing the root cause organizations focus their time and energy on the symptoms ensuring that they will never actually improve their normal performance.

Sure, bringing in senior resources to execute on delivery can mask the issues, but eventually you burn out those senior resources and organizational lung cancer sets in.  So how do you make sure you are addressing the right problem? A prescription for a little self-reflection, self-awareness, and honesty will help.

As leaders in a strong organization we need to build in these regular doses of reflection into our schedules to step back and identify the root causes within our organizations. I call this process the Leadership Check-Up, part of any good Health Care program.

Much like your annual physical (you do have an annual physical right?) the Leadership Check-Up is a chance to poke and prod at the chronic symptoms your organization is experiencing in order to identify the root issues that lie out of sight.

If you have a strong leadership team who has the ability to be honest with themselves in their self-reflection, or have built the Check-Up into the culture of your company this process can be facilitated internally and will actually become a normal part of how you operate. If your leaders struggle to see past the symptoms of your organizational issues you may need to engage an outside eye to help you get to the root issues.

If you build the Leadership Health Check into your organizational fabric you will find that over time your performance improve dramatically, that you will develop strong teams and a large pipeline of top talent, and that you’ll enable your strongest resources to focus on building ladders rather than fighting snakes. You’ll also find that the root causes you are solving start to look more like a bout with a mild case of the common cold than a lethal cancer.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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