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Getting the Problem Right: Identifying the True Issues in Your Organization

Updated: Apr 28, 2019

Written by: Megan Tormey

Consultant and Strategic Partner, Revolutionary HR Consulting

Too often organizations set off on a path of redemption with passion in their spirit and money in their pockets eager to solve a problem before it grows, inflicts lasting wounds, or becomes a public fail. It is a noble action indeed, trying to solve a problem. However, some organizations leap into problem-solving mode without taking the time to truly identify the problem. This misstep is not unique to large organizations. Individuals, project teams, departments, and entire departments have fallen into the same trap. The organization sets off, well-intentioned, to solve a problem quickly; allocating the best minds to create a solution. An idea is created, perhaps even tested within a few smaller, safer areas. Then halfway through the development, or worse yet, implementation of the "solution" someone realizes that it will not truly solve the problem; or that the problem was misdiagnosed altogether.

The issue occurs when the problem-solver(s) move to quickly to address the problem and symptoms without truly getting to the source of those symptoms first. As a result, the implemented solutions may work well for a while until symptoms appear in another area of the organization. Ultimately, the solutions aren’t working at all since there is a deeper, unrealized and untreated cut in the strategy, operations, or culture of the organization. In these instances, leadership is left with continuing issues and frustration with little to show for the effort and support for the initial solution.


Instead, individuals should spend more time on the front end, identifying the true cause of the problem. True problem identification can occur in several ways.

  • Symptom charts – much like a doctor would create with patients, organizations should list out all the symptoms or problems that are occurring; this includes - Brainstorming ideas as a large group - Gather individual responses in person, small focus groups, suggestion box, surveys

  • Group issues together to determine if there is one root problem or several problems working together. Groupings can be conducted by looking for themes, an affinity diagram, frequency, severity of impact, or any other way that makes sense to your project.

  • Root cause analysis – identify the types of causes. One of the best and most simplistic explanations I have found was MindTools three types of problems: Physical causes, Human causes, and Organizational causes (Root Cause Analysis, 2018). See the MindTools article for more information: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_80.htm.

Often, speaking with employees directly connected to the work can provide the insight needed to identify the problems even more quickly. Typically these employees can even predict the issues before they come, or at least can provide feedback in the moment. Any team implementing new processes, technology, structures or new ideas should at the very least gather feedback from front-line employees. They can provide real firsthand knowledge on aspects of the implementation plan that could be adjusted to be more effective, explain why something that makes sense theoretically will not work in practice, or share the challenges of getting a new process adopted.


Change itself is a challenge that all organizations face, even a perfect plan will face some resistance from that fact alone. Having a champion “on the ground” is itself a reason to gather input from the front-line employees. Here are a few other ways to work with impacted employees prior to problems or as part of solution generation:

  • Surveys – if the culture supports open and honest feedback (anonymous surveys may prove more effective in low trust cultures)

  • Focus groups – employees themselves share their ideas on the solution at its theoretical point, or better yet, are brought in at the beginning to brainstorm solutions of their own (with or without manager involvement)

  • As part of the project teams – diverse project teams which include front-line employees on the team from the onset often have better results

  • Solution Champions – front-line individuals connected with the project or on the team itself, who help gather input and share information with their peers

Taking the right steps to outline the problem correctly from the beginning can save precious resources. Once a solution is identified, do not stop there. Continue to ensure that the solution is the right one. Regularly ask the team working on the solution to recall the problem. Is the solution they are creating solving that problem or only part of it? Is the solution practical? Is it sustainable? A few ways to continue evaluating the solution include:

  • User Acceptance Testing with front-line users themselves (often even better if they are part of the solution development). Think about this beyond the technology standpoint. Try working through test cases with front-line employees.

  • Pilot projects – which test the solution in a few key areas before rolling out the solution to the entire team, system, or organization. Pilots are also key areas of learning that can help identify improvements or potential pitfalls before the full solution is launched on the organization, saving even more key resources.

There are many ways in which an organization can ensure the problem it is trying to solve, is truly the problem that needs to be solved. Taking the time to accurately identify the root cause of an issue will pay off in the long-term by saving valuable time, talent, and dollars often wasted by chasing solutions to symptoms

. Next time you are chasing a solution, take a moment to ask yourself, “Have I identified the actual problem?” before moving forward.

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