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The Right Diagnosis – Understanding the Problem is Halfway to Solving It

“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”


This quote is attributed to a number of people, and it’s hard to pin down exactly who might have first said it in these exact words. It was even part of a great scene delivered by Jeff Daniels in the pilot episode of the HBO hit, The Newsroom, when asked about America being the greatest country in the world.


However, one of the challenges in recognizing problems is that we’re human, and our ability to identify a root cause of a problem can be flawed. Quite often, how we view a problem can be completely different than the way someone else views it, and we have to try our best to be objective about the situation. Sometimes we don’t know enough individually to pinpoint the issue, or there are moments where emotions can cloud our judgment. But without understanding the actual cause of the problem or challenge at hand, the path forward may not end with the desired result, and actually has the risk of making things worse.


So, with that in mind, let’s refine the quote just a bit:


“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing the correct problem


Approaching Problems with Integrity


One of the reasons Integrity is a foundational trait is that so many other traits build off of it, including Problem Recognition and Problem Solving. A tremendous challenge in determining a path forward in solving a problem is the ownership of the problem, and is the person or group willing to accept responsibility, and hold themselves accountable, for what may have caused the issue in the first place. Whether accidental or through negligence, how often have we found someone or ourselves wanting to avoid telling a boss, a co-worker, or a spouse that a mistake was made? Attempting to dance around the issue, blame others, or pretend the problem is less than what it really is, doesn’t do anyone any favors, and could be more detrimental in the long run by not addressing it head on. It is critical that we are willing to hold ourselves, and others, accountable as part of the process to ultimately solve the problem.


In the same spirit, sometimes problems occur outside of out control, and we’re not responsible for them, but we don’t want to be honest with ourselves as to the true nature or impact of the problem, and continue to avoid dealing with it. Quite often life events can catch us off guard – a work position is eliminated during a company’s work reduction, or a family member is found to have a serious illness – the problem can be shocking, and impact many, but denying that the problem exists only delays the start of the journey to address the challenge and move forward. As hard as it may be, we must always be honest with ourselves when acknowledging problems. 


Approaching Problems with Curiosity


Similar to Integrity, Curiosity is also a foundational trait that other traits, including Problem Recognition and Problem Solving, rely upon. Quite often, we’ve made an observation, or identified a symptom, but that alone is not the actual problem. Curiosity begins to kick in, and we start to explore the issue more closely, perhaps needing to learn more about the subject, to truly understand what the root cause might be. In mentioning this, I’m not advocating “analysis paralysis” as you could get caught up in trying to pick apart a problem, research it to death, and not be any further along than when you started. But there usually a tipping point where enough data is gathered to make an informed decision, or realized that you have exhausted your own means to research it, and need to leverage the information and knowledge of others to help, in order to learn more about the problem.


When attempting to learn more about a problem, a traditional pyramid model found often in information technology can be applied. It is often referred to as the DIKW Pyramid, or Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom:


  • Data represents all of the gathered facts and figures about the problem, without context. Each piece in isolation likely has limited value.

  • Information is the organization of Data, and begins to place in context, and in a structured manner that can begin to answer basic questions such as “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when.”

  • Knowledge is the analysis and interpretation of Information that results in establishing possible relationships, trends, or patterns. It can answer the remaining questions of “how” and “why” when trying to get to the root cause of a problem.

  • Wisdom is the ability to take appropriate action, and make well informed decisions, based on the knowledge you have obtained through this process. This is ultimately the bridge from Problem Recognition to Problem Solving, but this tipping point cannot be achieved without successfully completing the journey through the Data, Information, and Knowledge steps in order to apply wisdom correctly.


More often that not, we follow these steps in a rather informal manner, and very rapidly, take what we know and have learned, organize it, and sift through it to determine a root cause of a problem. When problems are more complex, we might look to formalize our approach to identifying root causes.


Approaching Problems through Collaboration


Furthermore, when some of the problems we deal with are highly complex, or in areas we are less familiar with, despite our best efforts to explore and learn more about them, our best path forward is to collaborate with others and engage their knowledge and experiences in better understanding the problem at hand. How often might a general contractor on a construction site partner with a specialist such as an electrician, a plumber, or an HVAC technician, to address a specific issue? And all of us, at one point or another, have paid a visit to their family practice doctor, only to be referred to a specialist because your aliment is beyond the scope of their expertise. Yes, we might get frustrated that we did not have that immediate gratification of getting our problem solved right away, but thankfully these people have a network of resources to ensure they get to the correct issue in order to properly address it. We all have some level of pride in solving a problem ourselves, but if the first step in your problem recognition journey is realizing that you can’t solve this problem alone, that is a tremendous step in the right direction.


The Risk of Solving the Wrong Problem


In many cases, solving the wrong problem can make matters worse that not addressing the problem at all. This is all the more reason to ensure you have identified the correct root cause issue at hand before proceeding. Think about scenarios where doctors look to make absolutely sure that they have identified the correct diagnosis before determining a method of treatment to solve the medical problem. By comparison, the wrong diagnosis, and wrong method of treatment, could be detrimental to the patient’s long-term health.


Additionally, far less harmful, and far more likely daily scenarios are that not understanding or embracing the true root cause can lead to incomplete and/or ineffective solutions. This will likely result in needing more time and effort to ultimately address, as well as put at risk the trust of others that the problem can be properly rectified to begin with.


Complex Problem, Smaller Problems, and a Planned Approach


Finally, as you are learning more about the root cause of a complex problem, you may discover that it is not a single, large problem, but a group or series of smaller problems that may have some dependency on one another, or need to be addressed in a particular sequence. Understanding all of mini components of the larger problem, and leveraging the Planning and Preparation trait to help organize how you might go about solving each piece, is critical to a successful solution.



Charles Kettering is credited with the saying “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” You should feel more than comfortable that with a firm grasp of the root cause of a problem, you are well on your way to reaching a resolution. It may take some work and effort to find that root cause, but you will find the investment is well worth it in end.


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