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How to Clarify the Difference Between Symptomatic Issues and Root Causes for your Product Vision

How to Clarify the Difference Between Symptomatic Issues and Root Causes for your Product Vision

  • Product Development /
  • Product Strategy /

Jonathon Hensley

Assessing effects, analyzing the cause and adapting solutions in product development

Every day, businesses sink or swim as a result of their decisions (or indecision), market forces, and more. These organizations set out to be successful with a strong vision and plan to achieve it, but when they reach their goals (in part or in whole), they fail anyway. Why? There had to be an issue somewhere along the line, but what? Failures do not exist in a vacuum; they are typically symptomatic of a bigger problem.

Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7? Released in mid-2016, this widely-anticipated phone famously flopped after it began to explode and catch fire, much to the horror of its new owners. The failure of this device is so infamous, you can’t walk through an airport security checkpoint without seeing signs that specifically address whether these phones are allowed on planes (they are not).

It all comes down to cause and effect.

Sticking with the Samsung example, many would claim that the cause of the problem was that the phone blows up (not the good kind). But Note 7’s fantastic failure was really an effect, caused by a problem from within the Samsung organization, but what? This is one of the quintessential questions of business that leaves many project managers and executives scratching their heads. Unfortunately, the answer is often complicated.

Determine the Cause: Why is This Happening?

Harvard Business Review lauds an exercise called the Five Why’s. Why is this problem happening? Ask yourself again. Why is this problem happening? Keep asking until you’ve asked five times; each time you dig deeper. This layered questioning allows you to pick apart a complex problem to identify its true cause.

For example, why are my employees not performing as expected? Well, why? Because we’re not giving them the right information. Why? Because we don’t have access to the right information. Why? Because we haven’t built the tools needed to give that information. Why? Because we don’t have the knowledge or the expertise to build those tools. Why? Because when we began, they weren’t needed, but we have grown beyond our capabilities and the systems that we have today are no longer workable to reach our goals for tomorrow. This exercise allows you to get in deep, to clearly analyze and ultimately answer the question: what is the cause?

Dig Deeper: What is Affecting the Situation?

Business leader Michael Gerber wrote one of the most successful business books of all time called The E-Myth: Why Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About it. In it, he talks about cause and effect relationships in business. He suggests an excellent resource, the Key Frustration Process Worksheet, to distill down to the actual causes and effects of any business problem.

The worksheet offers seven steps needed to analyze, identify and solve the problem. Each step asks questions to help discover the cause and its remedy. This type of exercise works well because it not only demands that you find and understand the root cause, but also gain a high-level understanding of all the effects. Furthermore, goes a step beyond simple cause and effect analysis by leading businesses to seek solutions. This forward-thinking approach to problem solving will get you on the right track.

Create a Solution: How Can I Resolve This Issue?

Katharine Nester, the Chief Technology Officer of Ruby Receptionists, recently addressed cause, effect and problem solving during the Mobile First podcast [Episode 42]. She spoke about her company’s internal employee tracking system and issues they were having with tracking and inaccuracies (the effects) as a result of the lack of a single, central employee database (the cause). “We had a nightmare of a time reconciling names across those different systems and so we are just about to wrap up a project internally to create our own central employee database where we enter the information once and it feeds all those other systems so that we can accurately represent that data in dashboards and help our employees grow and mind their own productivity and be accountable for their own performance.” Katharine could clearly see the symptoms of the problem, diagnosed the cause, and prescribed a solution to remedy the problem.

Albert Einstein once said that “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” According to Einstein, you can emerge from difficulty with a greater, clearer vision than when you first began. You can use the knowledge and experience gained from the problem to come back and create a leaner, meaner vision. To learn how to do this and do it well, check out the Product Vision and Production Checklist.

The next time an effect comes across your desk, don’t let it get you down. Accept it, analyze it, determine the cause, and repurpose your vision to resolve it. With this approach, problems become possibilities.

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