Imagine you’re sitting by a river quietly reading a book. All of a sudden, you hear screaming and splashing—someone has fallen into the river, struggling to keep his head above the surface. You jump in, pull him back to the bank, and make sure he’s okay. Before long, he’s recovered and is off on his merry way.
You feel good about yourself. Really good.
You did a heroic, unselfish thing.
After not too much longer, it happens again—another person splashing and shouting for help. You jump in and pull her out too. Bewilderingly, this happens several more times in rapid succession. You feel great about your heroism, but you can’t help but wonder what’s going on up-river. So you head up the bank to see what you can find.
You don’t know where you’re going. Or what you’re looking for. Or what you’ll do when you find it.
Eventually, you come upon a bridge. And from your vantage point on the bank you see a nasty old troll hiding underneath, guarding it. You watch as an unsuspecting traveler walks toward the bridge, only to be grabbed by the troll and thrown into the river.
Now you see the situation clearly, and you have two options: you could sit by the bridge all day and warn people about the troll. This would certainly be heroic and gain you much thanks and praise.
Or you could go under the bridge, out of sight, entering into much uncertainty as to how best to deal with it and quietly take care of the root problem: the troll itself.
Across our organizations, people tend to operate on the surface where they can be heroes. It feels good to be the hero, to solve problems as they arrive one after another. But we all know these surface-level problems are often symptoms to deeper issues. And being the hero—curing symptom after symptom—can make it hard to want to look for the deeper causes that are holding an organization back.
In my book The Enduring Organization, I address how to see symptoms for what they are and how to dig deeper to uncover root problems (which will be the topic of my next post). In Chapter 3 of the book, I explain, "Most people try to resolve issues or create change at the symptom level ... But in the end, that’s like mowing dandelions that will grow back with a vengeance."
When you learn how to look hard, gain unique vantage points, and build the courage and humility to peer under the bridge, you can come face to face with the nasty old trolls that cause problems in your organization. It’s usually not glamorous work to uncover these problems. And it will probably earn you a few enemies along he way. But it's the hard, important, necessary work to creating enduring organizations.
So what’s the moral of the story? If what you’re doing isn’t solving the problem, find a bigger problem to solve.
In his 25 years as Founder and President of The McLean Group, Hal McLean has honed a unique ability to liberate hidden capacity in businesses, creating value far beyond the bottom line. Follow him at @TheMcLeanGroup and contact him here.