Spending too much time putting out small fires?

As I become more focused on working with organizations amidst change, two issues are prevalent. First, almost every organization has problems (no surprise here). But more importantly, most are only addressing symptoms.

Whether you’re a business owner or a member of church organizations, non-profits or member associations, all ultimately have similar challenges.

The Challenge

Regardless of the type of organization, if the leadership is primarily volunteer the challenge is the same: time. As volunteers, the work that must be done (no matter how much or how little) must be accomplished in the margins between work and home life. And based on the average adult’s calendar, there is not much time to be found there.

So this means that volunteer activities often are squeezed into small pockets as they become available. How do I know this is the case? Because over the years I have often been the one doing the squeezing within my own schedule. Unfortunately, this also means that the work rarely gets the focus that we would truly like to dedicate to the task at hand. Instead, we focus on completing the task, solving the problem, or making the decision with little attention to the bigger issues.

Symptoms Are Easy

Although in many cases it is important for tasks to get done, problems solved and decisions made, it is rarely the most important role of the leadership. Leadership needs to be focused on visionary and strategic issues as opposed to logistics and tactics. The problem is that logistical and tactical issues are easy to assign, to measure, and know if they are completed. As such, they often provide a sense of instant gratification.

However, these sorts of issues and problems are almost always a symptom of a much more significant underlying issue. Because symptoms are almost always easier to address, it is easy to convince ourselves that when we “fix” a symptomatic problem, we are addressing the root cause. This only allows to root problem to grow over time until it becomes completely systemic.

Rarely are systemic issues avoided on purpose; they are just difficult to unearth without serious amounts of focused time and energy invested into the process which takes us back to the initial challenge.

Getting to the Root Cause

Back when I worked for Ernst and Young, LLP as a business consultant, one of the techniques I learned was called Root Cause Analysis. Although there was a bit more to the technique, the fundamental process was to continually and repeatedly ask “Why?” until you got to the most basic issue. However, to effectively accomplish the process three elements were essential:

  1. The right people in the discussion who could really answer the question: Why? Sometimes this includes leadership, but not always. Often the best insights come from those closer “to the factory floor.”
  2. Ample time to work through the process. I never saw this ever completed in just a few hours. Many times it happened through a series of discussions, interviews and observations that occurred over several days if not weeks.
  3. Someone to facilitate the discussion to keep it focused and to continue to probe as required. Surprisingly it is often easier to create a sense of trust with a complete stranger more quickly than with folks you have worked with and known for a period of time.

The biggest challenge is not uncovering the root cause, but making the commitment to put in the time and effort needed to facilitate change. Unlike the symptoms, root causes can almost never be fixed quickly and success can only be measured over the course of months – and often years.

If you are a member of a volunteer board, how much of your time on that project has been wasted discussing minor problems and tactical issues? This is an indicator of a larger root problem within your organization! Your time should be spent focusing on the big picture, setting and achieving goals that will move your organization forward. If that sounds like a better way to spend your time, I’d love to help your members get back on track. Sign up below and I’ll send you a FREE diagnostic tool to help you assess the overall health of your volunteer board*, and I’ll also keep you in the loop when there are available spots on my calendar to work with groups like yours to solve these root problems.

*The tool isn’t quite ready yet but you’ll be the first to get it when it is!