Are you solving the symptom or the real problem?


How many times have you been working on something, and you think it's solved, but then something else goes wrong? It's frustrating, right? Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the symptoms, we can't find, much less know how to solve, the root of the problem.

A while back someone came to me asking for help. She’d been looking for work for a few months, she’d had multiple interviews with multiple companies, and even made it to the final round a couple of times, but didn’t get the job, and it was breaking her spirit and confidence.

She was concerned because she was nearing the end of her career and suspected she was encountering age-ism. And because she is older and had a long career already, she could do and was interested in a wide variety of things. She was concerned that her LI profile was choppy and eclectic She wanted help with her personal brand, a way to tie everything together. She also needed a confidence boost.

Even though her LinkedIn profile was, indeed, choppy, she was getting interviews and succeeding at having second and third interviews, which told me that her resume was working, her LinkedIn profile was working, and her networking was working. And because she was making it pretty far in the interview process, I suspected it wasn’t about interviewing, either.

The problem wasn’t personal branding at all. That was a symptom.

What she actually needed was clarity on what she really, truly wanted. And in order to arrive at that clarity, what she needed, more than anything else, was a safe place and permission to explore and express what she wanted.

So that’s what we did. She dreamed out loud, I took notes and asked questions.

This process included talking about what she was afraid of as well as what she secretly wanted but “knew” it probably wasn’t possible. It included what she wanted in a job now as well as what she wants her retirement to look like.

We did not do any “personal branding” exercises like make a word cloud, answer the “If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?” question, or interview a bunch of people to find out what they would say about her. Sometimes getting feedback from others is a very useful tool, but in this case, she already knew what others thought.

She was unsure about what SHE thought.

By getting clear on what SHE wanted and how she can help a company using the skills SHE wants to, it became a whole lot easier to decide what to call herself on LinkedIn, what to put in a cover letter, and how to talk about herself in interviews, even though we weren’t trying to solve those problems. Those “problems” — a choppy, eclectic LinkedIn profile and always being the runner-up job candidate — were symptoms.

By getting clear on what she wanted, she became naturally enthusiastic and confident during the interview process. We didn’t do any interview prep or focus on how she needed to be more confident. She became more confident through the process of knowing and owning who she is and what she wanted.

She stopped applying for countless jobs every day that she was trying to talk herself into wanting even though she didn’t. She stopped spending hours researching companies she didn’t want to work for. She stopped trying to mold herself into what she thought companies were looking for and wanted, and instead, focused on what she actually wanted to do and what she especially loves to do for whatever company she works for. She stopped worrying about being old and trying to hide her age.

Once she gave herself permission to want and believe what she wanted, it showed up. She found a company that is exactly what she was looking for and she is exactly what they are looking for.

Solve the problem, not the symptoms.

Whether we’re talking about IT infrastructure, manufacturing, or looking for work, we can expend tremendous time and energy on trying to solve symptoms. The symptoms are what’s easy to see because they show up as the results we don’t want. But solving the symptom is like playing whack-a-mole; the problem doesn’t go away, it just turns up as another symptom.

When we don’t get to the root, we chase our tails, get frustrated and that makes it even harder to stay motivated and get the results we want.

When we get to the root and solve it, all the symptoms dissipate. For my client, once she had clarity about what she wanted, it was relatively easy to decide what to call herself on LinkedIn and how to find the thread that ran through her eclectic set jobs.

So, how do you find the root of a problem?

First, be like Albert Einstein and spend some time identifying what the actual problem IS.

We often start with identifying the symptoms of the problem, and then start brainstorming solutions for the symptoms—but any solution that targets the symptoms may be missing a whole lot of information and perspective. Try using the “Five Whys” tool to see if it can help you get to the root of the problem.

For each symptom or problem, simply ask: “Why is that happening?” five times, or until you get to what seems like the root problem. You can substitute whatever the previous answer is for “that.”

It may take some fiddling with but give it a try when you’re facing some results you don’t want. Before you run off brainstorming solutions OR before you become bogged down with all the reasons these solutions won’t work, make sure you’re accurately identifying the problem.

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