Stop Fixing The Leaks Find The Root Cause

Mark Farrer-Brown
Mark’s Scale Up Essays
5 min readFeb 7, 2021

Solving the right problem will put you on the path to success

Are you solving the symptom or the root cause?

The leaders we coach like to solve problems and they are good at it. They pride themselves on finding solutions quickly to problems their team members are facing. It feels good to be decisive and to signal you’re getting stuff done. You are taught to think that having a solution is how you add value.

Too Often You Are Solving The Wrong Problem

This tendency to move into action mode, however, can lead you and the company into a series of time-wasting activities solving the wrong problem.

If a company thinks its problem is that it’s not achieving enough new sales, it may get rid of some staff, hire in a new team and increase the marketing spend.

But if the real problem is not the sales team but the product, this completely changes the root problem and the solution required.

When faced with a problem, the aim is to make the future better by solving it. But the reality is we too often solve the symptom and not the root cause. The problem can then reappear.

In the example above, you could have kept on the existing sales team, not wasted time and money recruiting a new sales team or thrown marketing spend down the drain, and instead focused your resources on solving the issues with the product.

Fire fighters spend very little time putting out fires compared to the time spent trying to prevent fires in the first place. If you focused more on prevention of future problems than firefighting, imagine how many hours of potentially productive time you would be freeing up.

So What Can You Do To Find The Root Cause?

Here are six tips:

1. Don’t Accept The First Problem Brought To The Table

The solution of any problem is shaped by how you define the problem. And so, if you accept the problem as it is first presented then you may well be on the path to failure because most of the time the first problem brought to the table is not what needs to be solved.

If you are the decision-maker you need to do your own work to find the real problem and ask questions like this:

“Is this a symptom or the problem?”

“Is this a secondary problem that has been triggered by the root cause?”

“If I solve this problem is it likely to reappear?”

“What would have to be true for this not to be a problem in first place?”

2. Use Socratic Questioning

Each person will be looking at a problem through their own lenses and no one person is going to have a 360-degree lens on it. Depending on the complexity of the problem you might use Socratic questioning to challenge the accuracy and completeness of your or someone else’s thinking. It is a series of carefully sequenced questions to help define problems and bring out the root causes in a systematic manner using concise, open-ended, neutral yet purposeful questions:

a. Questions for clarification i.e. use basic ‘tell me more’ questions in order to go deeper

b. Questions that challenge assumptions i.e. encourage thinking about unquestioned beliefs

c. Questions looking for evidence i.e. dig into reasoning

d. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives i.e. encourage considerations about alternative viewpoints

e. Questions that probe implications and consequences i.e. test the logical conclusions

f. Questions about the original questions i.e. challenge the questions themselves

3. Separate The Problem-Definition Meeting From The Solution Meeting

Whether or not it is team-based you should deliberately create space between defining the problem and the problem solution. If it is a personal decision you have to make, we recommend you write down the problem in a decision journal (more on that another time) — making it concrete forces you to slow down and check your thinking.

If it is a team-based issue, a great way of doing that is to have one meeting which defines the problem and another to find the solution. This will prevent the rush to action allowing you to properly reflect on what the true problem is.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

This can certainly be true in coaching sessions — we can spend an inordinate time, or that is how it can feel to my client, on defining the problem and once there is real clarity on the problem, the solution is often a short step away.

4. Ask Team Members To Write Down What They Think The Problem Is

If it is a team-based problem ask team members to define what they think the problem is, ideally in advance of the problem-definition meeting or if you can’t do it in advance get everyone to write down their definition before the discussion starts. Simply ask:

“In your own words what is the problem we are solving?

This prevents team member’s thinking being affected by the status of someone else’s views. If someone else senior to you defines the problem you are likely to agree with their definition. You will be amazed how different the responses are.

5. Bring An Independent Party To The Problem-Definition Meeting

Ideally include someone objective who understands your world but is not fully immersed in it. Someone who is able and capable of saying what they think, is not influenced by office politics and is more interested in facilitating a healthy debate than dominating any discussion with their opinions.

6. Use The 5 Why’s Technique

This technique was developed by the founder of Toyota and is based on the belief that you are more likely to get a realistic understanding of what is going on from someone close to the action (i.e. someone on the shopfloor) than someone removed from the action (i.e. in the boardroom). It is a very simple technique which is probably best used on less complex, more specific problems rather than abstract ones. You simply drill down to the root cause by asking “Why?” five times. Each question is based on the previous answer, not the original statement.


Establishing root cause is not usually an easy task and there are often more than one.

By deliberately spending time focusing on defining the problem you are much more likely to be getting to the root of the problem which means you will stop wasting time solving symptoms and start solving the right problems — this will put you on the path to success.

Solving the root cause will bring a brighter future where problems disappear creating more time to address the consequential opportunities and decisions.

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About me

Hi, I’m Mark, I help accelerate the development of Founders into CEOs through coaching and mentoring. I have been there and done the entrepreneurial journey from all perspectives and, as an entrepreneur, director, mentor, coach and investor, I have been involved in over 65 companies. I am also a business angel focusing on fast-growing tech businesses in the UK, US and India. For the fuller story, visit Fit to Lead.

About this publication

The Coach for Entrepreneurs is a series of blog posts covering all the topics which I believe will help entrepreneurs survive and thrive the entrepreneurial journey. Each blog is an extract from The SPARK Newsletter which I publish in full on my website Fit to Lead.