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The Effectiveness-Lab

Mixing symptoms and management problems

We continue to observe a persistent pattern in the OD manifestations in organizations. Managers and those that work for them don’t always differentiate OD symptoms from management problems. Signs are looked at as management problems and vice versa.

Get the right lens!

A symptom is a sign that a particular domain of management is not functioning well. It’s not a problem. On the other hand, a management problem is when a domain of management is dysfunctional or missing altogether. ns like the rainbow colours, symptoms and management problems at times overlap. To the naked eye, it can be difficult to separate the two

Growing up in Nakabugu village in Uganda, our mother always made the point that headache isn’t a disease per se, but a symptom of a disease. And indeed, whenever one of us complained of headache, it more often than not turned out to be a sign of malaria or some other body infection.

The symptom vs. management problem dichotomy

Asymptomatic OD sustenance is the ideal state any organisation should aspire to have. It’s assumed that when an organisation shows no symptoms of underlying management problems, all is well. OD asymptomatic entities have attained a health OD state – bionic-balance. The Effectiveness Lab

Common OD. symptoms:

  • Process and turn-around delays. When an organisation is slow at accomplishing its outcomes, that is not a management problem but a sign of an underlying problem in the organisation’s value chain.
  • Feeling of apathy amongst the organisation’s rank and file. When the organisation’s employees are indifferent to what the organisation does, it’s time for the managers to explore what is happening below the surface
  • Customer dissatisfaction and never-ending customer complaints. Organisations commit to doing certain things for the public – that is their value proposition.  To attain the latter, organisations establish a value-chain: in effect, a series of steps/processes that deliver value. The clientele, with certain expectations in mind, at times are dissatisfied with the value outcome. Again, when the latter manifests, it’s likely that a certain management domain is not right
  • The rudderless boat disease. Organisations that lack a clear sense of purpose and direction. You may have come across situations where the rank and file in an organisation ask what you want from them. The latter is a symptom of a particular management problem.

Common OD management problems:

  • A problem with the organization’s architecture. At times organizations don’t pay enough attention to design dynamics. When the structure of an organization isn’t right, processes become dysfunctional, decision making gets impacted, and the ultimate outcomes are: decision-velocity challenges, long product/service lead times, and agility plus niftiness get sacrificed.
  • A problem with the organisation’s people management paradigm. In certain instances, people management at companies is an accident of OD. People management happens because it has to happen; no rational thinking is put to the process. We manage people like our kindred in Nakabugu herd their cattle; we should always recall that we are dealing with homo-sapiens.  More often than not, apathy amongst the staff points to a wider people management problem
  • The lack of or bad strategy. Effective organisations can be compared to the modern vehicle – it has many parts, some moving and others static. Yet, all parts have been put together in a system, to deliver a certain: amount of horse-power, comfort, etc.  The vehicle may be designed for a niche market like the ‘4×4′ off-road, town runner, or heavy goods carrier; and each part of the vehicles’ system has a role to play for the vehicle to meet its niche standard.

So, to complicate the above vehicle-type analogy a little more, effective strategy is the art of defining: the vehicle-type, the value the vehicle brings to the buyer and assembling all its moving and static parts, to meet the demand of the buyer. When a strategy is bad or lacking, you get symptoms like customer dissatisfaction and desertion. When customers desert a firm, its bottom-line is impacted. So, the problem is not desertion, but a botched organisation strategy.

  • A problem with the leadership in the organisation. There is simply too much written about leadership these days and this blog is adding to the problem. And yet, leadership of organisations, including the most powerful nation-states on earth, is still a problem. Problems with bad leadership manifest via an organisation lacking direction or a variant of the latter. Symptoms like the rudderless-boat-disease above may be the sign that there is a leadership problem in the organisation

Now, we ought to be cautious and not present symptoms and the accompanying problems as a linear challenge. It’s not a black and white affair. Management problems and symptoms are at times intertwined. For example, the lack of strategy may relate to the people profile at the organisation and the reverse may also be true. Therefore, strategy challenges can’t be looked at in isolation of the human resource and its organisation; after all, human resource delivers strategy.  In the same vein, symptoms aren’t a stand-alone phenomenon. Process and turn-around delay may be due to apathy amongst the organisation’s rank and file, that leads to demotivation and the loss of productivity, etc.

The solution:

The answer to getting the dynamic between symptoms and management problems right is in creating an appropriate OD regime.

OD., in full organisational development, is a deliberate process to improve and sustain the effectiveness of the organisation.

According to the Effectiveness lab OD integrates leadership, strategy, the organisation’s structure and people to improve efficacy. Our experience is that the main organisational problems are generally related to the lack of or dysfunctional:

  1. Leadership
  2. Strategy
  3. Design
  4. People management regimes

The rest can be considered symptoms. Managers are advised to address the real problems facing organisations and not symptoms.

Get the right lens!


One response to “Mixing symptoms and management problems”

  1. Reblogged this on Gabazira's blog and commented:

    How many times do you engage others on OD. matters only to realise that they are confusing symptoms and management problems?


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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