Last week I had a bad cold. I was coughing, sneezing and trying to stop my head from exploding. To try and alleviate my suffering, I was ingesting every cold medicine I could find.
While I was lying in bed, I thought that my problems were:
1. A stuffy nose
2. A persistent cough
3. A headache
So, to solve my “problems”, I took nasal spray, cough suppressant and Aspirin. I definitely felt better after taking these medicines, but these “problems” kept returning every few hours. I had to regularly take these medicines if I wanted to get through the day.
And with each of these medicines, I had to suffer the negative side effects — My nose completely dried out from the nasal spray, and the cough suppressant I took made everything I ate taste awful.
Do you want to know why I kept suffering despite taking medicines that should have been solving my problems?
I wasn’t solving my problem, I was just treating my symptoms.
My problems weren’t any of the symptoms I was experiencing — My problem was that I had a cold. There is no cure for the common cold, so I had no choice but to treat the symptoms and hope for the best.
In business, people often think that their symptoms are their problems.I’ve personally heard countless game developers and entrepreneurs tell me that the biggest problem they face is that their product isn’t selling.
That’s not a problem. That’s a symptom of a problem (or of several problems).
Maybe your product isn’t selling because your marketing strategy sucks (or doesn’t exist). Maybe your branding is misleading customers. Maybe your product just isn’t what the market needs right now.
If you want to successfully grow your business, you need to understand the difference between problems and symptoms, and identify strategies to solve your problems rather than just treat your symptoms.
A technique that I’ve been using to think about what is a problem and what is just a symptom is this:
Do I have control over this?
If you are facing a problem, you have direct control over the situation and can do something about it.
If you are experiencing a symptom, you have no direct control over the situation and need to solve the underlying problem rather than treat just its symptoms.
A lot of times, one problem can actually lead to a chain reaction of symptoms. It’s important to work backwards and figure out the level at which you can intervene and actually solve a problem. I call this the “issue chain” approach.
Let’s look at an example. I’m going to introduce the issues that arise at each level of the issue chain, and discuss how to think about the problem piece-by-piece and holistically.
Top-level issue: Our product is not selling
Symptom or problem? Symptom
Probably the most common “problem” businesses face is a lack of revenue. It’s easy to point your finger at a lack of revenue and say that your problem is that people aren’t buying your product. However, if you want to be an effective leader, you need to ask yourself why people aren’t buying your product.
Next level issue: Our sales team is ineffective
Symptom or problem? Symptom (in this case)
Your sales team seems to be having difficulty convincing prospects to buy. Maybe that’s the problem here?
…Maybe. What’s interesting about this issue is that it could be either a problem or a symptom.
It’s a problem if the only reason the team is ineffective is because they are simply incompetent people who need to be let go and replaced with smarter salespeople. A problem is something that your actions can directly fix. A symptom will stick around and reappear even if you apply a temporary solution.
If you fire the sales team and hire better people and consequently, your sales go up, then you’ve solved the problem. But if not, it was a symptom, and something else is at play.
Next level issue: Our sales team is not adequately informed
Symptom or problem? Problem
Here we go. The root cause of the issues arising in this example is that your company is not training its salespeople well enough. Here, your actions can very clearly lead to a resolution. That’s why this is a problem and not a symptom.
If you start training your sales team better (thereby solving the root problem) they will become more comfortable pitching potential clients (thereby solving the second level symptom) and close more deals (thereby solving the top-level symptom).
By solving the root problem, you’ve fixed the issues all the way up the chain. If all you had done was treat the symptom (for example, treating the ineffective sales team symptom by just hiring a new sales team and training them the same way), you may have seen some direct relief (the new staff may be better salespeople), but the problem likely would have come back at some point (since you trained them the same way as the original team).
This specific example is super general and is not intended to demonstrate how to solve the specific issue of your sales being low (there are countless possible explanations for low sales), but rather how to think about solving any real problem in your workplace.
Whether it’s related to financial results, landing investment, or even employee performance, make sure you understand what’s a symptom and what’s a problem before you start finding solutions.
Make sure you’re analyzing every issue in the issue chain by asking “why” until you get to something you can actually take action on.
In the above example, I would apply the “why” framework like this:
Issue chain: Our sales are down because our sales team is underperforming because we didn’t train them well enough.
The last step of that sentence reveals the steps you can take to solve the entire issue chain. In this case, the solution to the root problem (lack of training) is to run better training and provide the sales team with more information.
Here are a few other miscellaneous examples.
Issue chain: We’re having difficulty recruiting new hires because most people who work with us leave within less than a year because they don’t like our culture because our office policies are too strict.
Solution to root problem: Rework your office policies, taking employees’ feedback into consideration.
Issue chain: My co-founder and I are having relationship issues because we keep stepping on each other’s toes because our responsibilities are not clearly defined.
Solution to root problem: Write down each co-founder’s responsibilities, ensure both parties are in agreement, and devise a protocol for when responsibilities overlap.
Issue chain: Customers are asking for refunds at a high rate because they don’t like our product because it doesn’t have all the features they want because we didn’t listen to the feedback we got during user testing becauseour product manager is inexperienced.
Solution to root problem: Figure out the weaknesses of the current PM and either train them accordingly or replace them with someone more experienced. Then, take another look at your user testing.
This analytical approach works in personal life too. See…
Issue chain: My partner and I are having relationship trouble because they feel like they aren’t being listened to because we don’t communicate often enough.
Solution to root problem: Have honest, heart-to-heart check-ins with each other more often, and make sure you listen carefully when you do talk.
I hope this article helps you the next time an issue arises in your life. Dissect the issue chain and prioritize figuring out the solution to the root problem. Good luck!
P.S. — Leave a comment below with an issue chain you’ve been facing at work, and tell me how you’re thinking about solving the root problem. I’d love to hear your stories!