Solving Tough Problems at their Root Cause: CALL TO ACTION

Do you recognize the following? For almost two decades, we have been trying to adjust our organisations to the challenges of today’s world. We experience the consequences of this as ongoing cost-saving pressures, burnouts and layoffs of productive employees. This cannot continue, can it? Do you agree that it is time to stop with solution approaches such as ‘let us try once more’ and move toward ‘we solve tough problems at their root cause’? 

In that case, I would like to invite you to ask guiding questions, examples of which are available within this and upcoming blog posts. Let’s start by establishing why many unsolvable problems are solvable.


Why many Unsolvable Problems are Solvable

Solving supposedly unsolvable problems is something I learned at IT service provider EDS. On an ongoing basis, we had services in production that were ahead of their time. Clients and employees were beyond happy. Looking back, it turns out there was a particular culture. Certain guiding mechanisms were integral to it. This culture came from its founder, Ross Perot. Later, Perot became known for his candidacy for the office of president of the United States. 

The most important characteristic of this culture was that it directed us to do what was needed to keep clients happy and employees motivated. This meant that, amongst other things, unsolved problems were not an option. They had to be solved at their root cause once and for all. To make this happen, we listened to the parties involved, and this meant going beyond writing down their requirements. We practiced inclusive listening—hearing requirements the involved parties were unaware of. Moreover, when there were no obvious solutions, we used experience and common sense to create our own.

Then came the best practices. Perot had already left. Compliance with processes and best practices became more important than happy clients and motivated employees. What wasn’t recognized was that this made the old culture disappear. With it, the problem-solving capability had been lost. When I found myself unable to do my job in the proper way, I re-applied techniques from the old culture together with some colleagues. As it turned out, this worked amazingly well, and we were able to deliver results in fields where the best practices had failed.    

We managed to bridge a structural communication gap between central and European organisations. The same solution provided Guided Self-OrganisationTM for the 30,000 European employees and critical structures for agility at enterprise level.

Later, via the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk‘ (Dutch only) the same techniques enabled us to identify huge resources waiting to be used to make the Dutch health services system affordable in the years to come. 

There was also a big surprise in my family. My son had daily emotional outbursts due to ADHD, and learning to read was a huge challenge because of his dyslexia. The results of standard treatments were insufficient. Yet, it was possible for me to find an existing unconventional therapy. His outbursts are down to one in ten years. After years of frustrating exercises to learn reading, he learned to read within six weeks. It turned out others had made similar experiences. Why it worked is explainable. One of the techniques applied is shown to us by our navigation systems when they recommend an alternative route to avoid a traffic jam (more about this in an upcoming post).   

For EDS it was too late, which was most unfortunate. A fantastic company ended up conducting yearly cost-savings projects, was subsequently taken over and its size reduced. 


The Best Practice Dilemma

At this point, some will argue that certain best practices include root cause analysis. I agree. In the real world, however, there are insurmountable obstacles. Those start with the common best practice of splitting complex challenges into supposedly manageable parts. The consequence of this is that, exceptions granted, root causes can only be seen when they are located within a part. This is something certain root causes refuse to be compliant with. With each round of solving symptoms instead of root causes, the negative impact has grown. It has grown beyond levels at which productive employees have to be laid off, burnouts and ongoing cost savings initiatives have become normal. 

With new best practices such as Agile/Scrum and self-organisation, similar patterns can now be seen as well. There is also a new complication: Their struggle against an overload of obstacles from the traditional best practices. This brings me to the best practice dilemma:

Consciously or intuitively, we know that new solution approaches are needed. As yet, our way of thinking prevents us from seeing the ‘high-impact’ root causes and their solutions. When they are found, they do not fit into the parts.

In turn, this provides the slogan to break through this situation:


We Solve Tough Problems at their Root Cause 

To solve tough problems, we need something to guide discussions and initiatives toward the root causes. A few difficult-to-ignore questions of highest impact should provide this guidance. In this respect, please observe that I used root cause instead of root causes by purpose. Additionally, knowing where to find a few initiatives to lead the way should help as well. 


Guiding Questions of Highest Impact

The following are the guiding questions you can use:

We have best practices, tools and experts for virtually any field. Where are those ensuring that not only the partial solutions work, but also the whole package at enterprise and system level? 

More specifically, where are those best practices, tools and experts that …

1.   solve the mounting conflicts between traditional1 and new best practices2?

2.   identify and solve the changeable (root) causes hiding behind complaints, reoccurring problems and ongoing cost-savings pressures?

3.  bridge the highly complex communication space between central and local organisations and between best practices?

4.  identify phenomena3 in complex environments and solve them with techniques suited to these phenomena?



1 Traditional/’old’ Best Practices: Project Management, Governance, service management/ITIL, etc. 

2 New Best Practices: Agile/Scrum, Semco, self-organization, etc.

3 Phenomena: Capacity bottlenecks, tipping points, butterfly effects, etc.


Initiatives Leading the Way

The most remarkable discovery was the answer to question 1: the mounting conflicts. While the negative impact is dramatic, it is solvable from a single word. It was published in 2011. Thereafter, it became lost in the information overload. Something was missing, as the necessary learning effect didn’t take place. That is the reason why I only provide this word after going through a little exercise. Do you want to know this word? If so, please click here. 

Amongst initiatives leading the way is the City of Tomorrow at Eindhoven, Netherlands, with the AiREAS project; a project aimed at reducing air pollution. Other initiatives are Paradoxical Leadership and the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk’. Also remarkable was a workshop of the Permanent Beta initiative in November 2017. As was the case with the City of Tomorrow and the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk’, people listened openly and without restrictions. Coaching techniques made it possible to break through hard-wired thinking.

In addition, it would help enormously if we had a method helping us to make the invisible visible and projects executable. Such a method exists. It provides answers to questions 2 and 4. With the analysis leading to Guided Self-Organisation, we used elements of this method without being aware that we were doing so. Another initiative was this: a potato sickness was threatening the harvest of the Netherlands. The initiative was trapped in endless discussions. At this point, this method was applied. A few months later, the project was up and running. Eventually the program ceased—not due to failure but because it was exceptionally successful (more information is available here; though it is in Dutch language). I call this method the de Monchy Method, named after the person who integrated multiple elements into an overall approach suited to get initiatives beyond the tipping point where they become executable.

With regard to question 3, the communication gap, a solution is available in this post as well. There will be more on this in a follow-up post. 


Call to Action

Do you want tough problems being solved at their root cause once and for all? Do you want this to be the case at the company you work for, with social challenges, within government organisations or in the health services system? 

In that case, I would like to invite you to ask the guiding questions. Ideally, this would lead to the questions being answered and to satisfactory next steps. Forwarding this call to action through online media and to places struggling with tough problems should also help.

Would you like to respond? Do you have an effective solution element for solving tough problems? Responses and contributions are welcome below this post (click here in case this is not visible), at LinkedIn group Leading in a Complex Environment, or via Twitter (@eoetringer)


About Eugen Oetringer

Driven to find Simple Solutions to Complex Challenges. Especially interested when earlier improvement attempts have delivered insufficient results.
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2 Responses to Solving Tough Problems at their Root Cause: CALL TO ACTION

  1. Thank you for your response Jan! You are saying “All our current ‘problems’ are symptoms of problems”: Correct me if I am wrong, in my view this is what this post is about! We could now have further discussions on what a problem, symptom or root cause is. I’ve stopped doing this as it has created endless discussions and no results. Instead, I use patterns. With patterns, we can have different views. As long as we understand each other, we can make real progress.

    You are further saying “The BIG challenge we’ve created, is to change fundamentally the way we communicate, trust each other, commit and co-operate.” Again, it looks we are on the same page. Though, so much has been tried and delivered insufficient results. Do you have something new to make this work?

  2. Jan Lelie says:

    Hi Eugen, all the best.

    Problems do not have a “root cause” any more, and – which is basically the same -, problem solving inherently creates “problems”. The latter “problems” are of a different logical type. We’ve solved all “solvable” problems, like hunger, disease and war. The solutions turned out to be very simple: communicating, co-operating, confiding and committing in and with each other. These created another “problem” we have to deal with: the distribution problem. How do we distribute the results of our problem solving? What is a fair share? What is “right” and what is “wrong”? This triggers the ultimate “problem” of how de we share power. These are unsolvable problems aka paradoxes.

    There is a second “problem”, if you want: “what if you’re part of the problem?”, What is your problem perception is the root cause of the problem. For instance, the (Dutch) “problem” of rising health expenses (they are not cost, defining them as cost is part of the problem) is clearly the result of
    – better care, including hygienic measures
    – healthier food, sport, cleaner air
    – research and innovative technologies

    This created and creates:
    – administration and regulations “to control costs”, without considering their “costs”
    – changing the system frequently, in order to reduce costs (without considering that change without adding value just adds to the costs)
    – opportunities to exploit the system of health care (and oppose paying more taxes when you’re earning more or having more wealth)
    – opportunities for “bad” habits, including dangerous sports like skiing
    – more of the same (which leads to the conclusion, that it cannot be a “market”, because a market should have diminishing returns on growth)

    All our current “problems” are symptoms of problems previously thought to have been “solved”, because we cannot “solve” problems like we (dis)”solve” salt in water.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of action. Our inability to solve “problems” shouldn’t stop us from doing so. The BIG challenge we’ve created, is to change fundamentally the way we communicate, trust each other, commit and co-operate. As it happens I’ve been inventing tools and techniques to do just that.

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