X) Focusing More On Symptoms Than Causes

Not focusing attention on the issue

"...getting people to focus their attention on tough problems can be a complicated and difficult task, particularly in large organisations..... where, typically, ways of avoiding painful issues - work avoidance mechanisms - have developed over many years. The most obvious example of work avoidance is denial. Even our language is full of shorthand reminders of this mechanism: "out of sight, out of mind; sweep under the carpet; if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Other typical work avoidance mechanisms are scapegoating, reorganizing (yet again), passing the buck (setting up another committee), finding an external enemy, blaming authority, and character assassination.......These mechanisms reduce the level of distress in an organisation or community but deflect attention from the tough issues and shift responsibility away from the people who need to change.......If you employ a routine mechanism for getting attention, people might well see the problem as routine and ignore it. So even with authority, you may need to find creative ways to signal that the new situation is different......if you are not in a position of authority, drawing attention entails risks as well as great challenges. You may form alliances with people who have more authority and can direct attention to the issues you see......to get attention of higher ups, chances are you will need to escalate your behaviour or rhetoric to a level that creates some personal risk......getting a group too focused on tough issue from a position without authority is always risky business. But you can lower the danger by speaking in as neutral a way as possible, simply reporting observable and shared data rather than making more provocative interpretations. It may be more than enough simply to ask a straightforward question in order to bring the underlying issue to the surface. When you are operating beyond your authority, you tread a thin line between acting out of role such that people will notice, and being so extreme that your issue (and perhaps you) will be dismissed..."

Ronald A. Heifetz et al, 2002

Trying to find solutions to treat symptoms rather than the fundamental causes

"...think of an intractable problem within your organisation. Chances are it is caused by factors that are fundamental to the way the organisation is structured, the way people think about their roles, and the way the organisation relates to the environment around it. Now think of the various ways you have tried to solve that problem. It is possible that the 'solution' will have treated the symptoms rather than the fundamental causes. Like the headache we treat with aspirin rather than searching for the cause, companies often shift the burden because the real change is wrenchingly difficult. ... The first step......is that you see these patterns of interdependence.......The second step is recognizing that the organisation has become kind of resigned to that pattern, and, importantly, recognizing that 'we' - including me - are all part of the problem. Recognizing that everyone has to change is difficult, particularly in the corporate environment where people have a lot at stake..."

Peter Senge as quoted by Mike Hanley, 2005

Three examples of focusing on the symptoms rather than the causes:

i) Head-ache (to treat a head-ache, we use a pain-killer. As the head-ache is most likely the symptom of something else, ie life out of balance. We are just treating the symptoms, not the causes, ie why life is out of balance. Additionally, we can end up with an extra problem - addiction to pain killers.)

ii) Plastic waste (many resources are used to clean-up the environment (land, water ways, oceans, etc) that are polluted by plastic waste. This is handling the symptom, ie disposing of waste, rather the cause, ie our use of plastic. We need to not use plastics and replace them with something else like paper.)

iii) Quality control (some organisations are pleased when their quality control processes find faults in the end product, ie their quality control is working. However, it is handling the symptoms, not the causes of quality issues. They should locate the causes and remedy them so that the end product is OK.)

With all scandals, like financial institutions causing the GFC and subsequent failures of the financial system eg Barclays abuse of the LIPOR, Enron's fraudulent behaviour, Bernie Mandoff's pyramid scheme, etc. With these examples plus many suggestions of how to solve things, ie corporate governance, Sarbanes-Oxley and fiduciary duties, etc, we are missing the basic point. They address the symptoms and not the causes.


Linked with this is the realisation that most managers are not aware of their organisational problems as compared to staff at lower levels, ie supervisors and other staff


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