Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? I’ve coined a similar law for business teams: For every symptom there is a hidden root cause. Symptoms are easy to see while root cause is often hidden. Why should we care? We make decisions on what we can see. If we can’t see root cause, then we’re making decisions on symptoms, and those decisions can pull us way off track.
Take for example my client Kathy, a leader asked to mediate issues between two teams outside her department. She told me she witnessed unkind behavior, avoidance and poor listening. How could I help her improve the communication between these two teams? I asked her, “How do you know these two teams are only suffering from poor communication?”
“Because”, she said”, “they said so and I’ve seen it.” “Ok, let’s just assume for a moment that the poor communication you’ve identified is just a symptom of something else. Then, what could be the cause?
She thought for a moment and then said: “They haven’t clarified roles, nor developed a process to hand off work. They also don’t have common goals or a decision making process.” Then I followed with: “If they had all of the things you just mentioned, would they still have poor communication? “Yes, but much less.”
The two teams Kathy was trying to help did indeed have some communication issues. Many team members were not good at modulating their style. For example, results-focused people didn’t take the time to listen to relationship-focused people. Communication delivery could definitely be improved. But, as Kathy discovered, most of these teams’ issues were not stemming from communication. They hadn’t done the foundational work to make them two interdependent teams.
I told Kathy she should follow the wisdom of small children who ask their parents why at the end of each answer, or Honeywell that adopted the practice of “asking the five whys”. This is a great way to get to root cause.
Kathy went back to these two teams and facilitated a process that addressed their root cause of poor communication: The lack of a solid team foundation. Later she worked with individuals on adjusting communication styles. She reported a few months later that the two teams were working much better together.
If Kathy had only addressed the symptoms, she might have put them through some communication exercises, helped them improve listening and how to adjust their styles. But, the underlying problems would not have been resolved. And, in my experience, when we aren’t addressing the root cause of an issue, a part of us is aware of this. This disconnect just creates more frustration.
The law of business teams that “For every symptom there is a hidden root cause” has three principles: Communication issues go down when teams are built on a strong foundation. Decisions based on symptoms create ineffective results. Asking the Five Whys helps get to root cause.
Dean Newlund is CEO of Mission Facilitators International