Solving the right problem is dependent on being able to separate symptom from disease.

solving the right problem

A symptom is but a manifestation of the true problem that lies beneath. Addressing the symptom rather than the problem is the grand flaw most of us make when we’re confronted with a difficult challenge, whether in business or in our personal relationships, or anywhere else in our sphere of living. Understanding why this is, and remaining aware of it, will help you develop the ability to dig below surfaces. Only by digging deeply will you be able to uncover the true problem you should be solving. Moreover, if you can uncover that problem, a solution often becomes clear.

So, what is it that prevents us from going beyond symptoms to where the true problem lies?

First, it’s the symptom that is painful and insistent, not the problem. The symptom hijacks your attention. Soothing the symptom becomes your overwhelming concern and distracts you from addressing what’s giving rise to the symptom in the first place.

Second, time is a bias. We want the pain gone quickly. Time spent investigating the symptom’s cause prolongs the pain we are experiencing from the symptom. Once we’ve eased the pain, finding its cause becomes less of a priority.

Third, mental concentration takes a lot of cognitive energy. We will choose to conserve cognitive energy whenever we can. Identifying and treating a symptom is cognitively efficient (if only in the short run). Delving to find underlying causes is cognitively taxing, and without strong intrinsic motivation we won’t do it.

There are various techniques/methods you can use to get to root causes. One technique that I find effective is Why/Because analysis (known in other forms as The 5 Whys, or 5Y) .

Let’s explore a simple scenario: you experience a significant drop in sales from one month to the next. The drop in sales is not the problem – it’s just a symptom. The thing that caused the drop in sales is the problem that needs to be uncovered, then fixed. The Why/Because exercise might go like this:

Why did sales decrease? Because a new competitor entered the territory. Why? Because they thought they could take some of the market from you. Why? Because they knew they could offer a better price. Why? Because your product is a commodity and your customers buy only on price; the new competitor’s larger size allowed them to secure a better price from the supplier. Why? Because they were able to take advantage of volume discounts that you could not.

So, the real problem here is that your competitor can offer a better price. That in itself suggests a number of possible solutions:

  1. Join in an association with others in your industry to secure volume discounts.
  2. Find a new supplier that will offer better pricing.
  3. Cut costs to maintain your profit margin at lower sales volumes.
  4. Institute a marketing initiative to persuade your customers that your product is worth a premium price.

Had you concentrated simply on boosting sales, you might have tried offering discounts or promotions. In essence, shooting in the dark. Perhaps your sales would have gone back up – soothing the symptom – but for how long? Without other changes, the discount strategy would not be sustainable. By searching for the root cause, you increase the chance that you’ll be able to find a solution that stops the problem from recurring – a structural, not a surface fix.

There are numerous methods that can bring you to the same place as Why/Because analysis. All provide a tool to help you dig deeply into a problem to find its root cause. Find the root cause and you’ll be solving the right problem. Otherwise, you’ll end up solving the same – wrong – problem, over and over again.