Why we need to understand symptoms versus root cause

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Symptoms versus root cause blog

If you’re a CEO or senior leader, you’ll understand this feeling… you know something’s wrong but you’re not quite sure why. It might be affecting a specific team, a function, or the whole organisation.

That niggling feeling is what we call the symptoms of chaos. Everything feels a bit muddled, chaotic and people seem to be at odds with each other. Sometimes, things have been put in place to address them but they keep recurring and things don’t seem to be changing.

If this is something you’ve experienced, it’s because you’re dealing with the symptoms instead of the root cause. Treating the symptoms or finding solutions to the things you’re seeing on the surface is often plastering over the cracks. We want to fill those cracks to ensure the foundations are solid.

If we look at the Oxford Languages definition, a symptom is, “an indication of the existence of something, especially of an undesirable situation”. On the other hand, the root cause is the core issue – the ultimate reason behind the symptoms. It’s what sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction, which eventually leads to the symptoms.

Lack of growth is a symptom, but the root cause could be team friction, an absence of commercial understanding, or lack of connection to front-line employees or the customer… any number of reasons. But you can’t address sluggish progress unless you understand what’s behind it.

Take the sensitive issue of senior team members off on sick leave or stress. I’ve seen many organisations trying to fix symptoms like these. It might be with an employee wellbeing campaign. It could be a new leadership development programme. These can make things better for a bit, however, the old issues start to trickle back in. If this is left for too long things can become very toxic and very chaotic and when it gets to that point, there is a lot more to fix. If you are treating the symptoms, the issues will reoccur, and eventually, you have to start diagnosing what’s wrong – the root cause.

The Field ModelTM was designed to understand, diagnose and fix the difficult symptoms an organisation or team might be experiencing, by identifying the root cause. I like to use the medical analogy of a headache when explaining symptoms versus root cause, which I summarise in this short video below:

If we continue to treat the symptoms we are wasting money, time and energy on things that won’t actually change what we need to change.

Getting to the heart of issues isn’t easy. People can be naturally defensive. Plus, when we do something – anything – we feel like we are moving forward. So it’s easy to fall into the trap of treating the symptoms. We don’t like change or ambiguity and there will be some difficult conversations. But all change requires an element of discomfort if we’re to avoid the same issues resurfacing again. If you are experiencing chaos within your team or organisation, it’s worth diving deeper to ask if you’re dealing with the symptoms or the root cause. Don’t waste your time and money on papering over the cracks. Take the time to dig a bit deeper so that your investment is in the right things that will help you get where you want to go.

If you’d like to know more, I talk about this in further detail in this long read for Bananatag about how to create real change in organisations. Find out more about The Field ModelTM, download this overview of typical symptoms of chaos or get in touch if you have any burning questions.

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