Own My Growth

Helping folks with practical tips to manage themselves better

Differentiate Between Symptom And Problem

Symptom and Problem

Whenever there is a question like What’s the issue or problem, the response typically is something like this.

  • The customer is stalling, and I have not been able to connect with him.
  • He is repeatedly missing deadlines.
  • She is having anger issues.
  • I have a headache.
  • I have not been able to close the deal.

 Often, the language we use describes the symptom as a problem. Every problem is a symptom at the surface, and the real problem is almost always buried deep under. Getting to the real problem is a bit like peeling an onion. One has to go below the surface, layer by layer, to identify the core issue. He is repeatedly missing deadlines, or the customer is stalling- these are symptoms of a deeper issue. The Five Whys technique is the best way to get to the real issue. By asking “why” progressively, you can usually reach the root cause of the problem within five iterations. 

Five WHY Approach

 Let me illustrate with an example how we get to the root of the problem using the Five WHY technique. 

1. Why is he missing the deadlines?

  • Because he is working on too many agendas.

2. Why is he working on too many agendas?

  • Because he believes he needs to attend to all of them.

3. Why does he think that way?

  • Because he perceives all the agendas as necessary and fears negative consequences if he neglects them.

4. Why is he worried about being seen in a negative light?

  • Because he feels his boss expects him to work on all the agendas, and he fears it will impact his full-year evaluation.

5. Why does he worry that his full-year appraisal may be affected? Did he discuss it with his boss?

  • No, he didn’t. It’s simply a fear he has in his mind.

In this example, if we consider the symptom as the problem, we may conclude that the executive is inefficient or not very competent. However, by digging deeper and identifying the root cause, we find that the issue stems from the executive’s fear of reprisal from the boss. Once this is recognized, it becomes easier to address the problem by initiating a conversation with the supervisor, alleviating the fear, and guiding the executive to focus on one or two agendas at a time to avoid missing deadlines. 

Getting To The Real Problem Is A Skill

Identifying the real problem beneath the surface is a valuable skill everyone should practice and develop.

The “Five Whys” technique is helpful in this process. It involves asking the right questions, actively listening, and discerning the true meaning behind what the other person is expressing rather than taking their words at face value. 

Learning to differentiate between symptoms and problems more effectively enhances your problem-solving abilities.

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