The Problem Behind the Problem

Problems always come in pairs. There’s the immediate problem that must be fixed. Then there’s the problem behind the problem—the breakdown in the process, the policy, or the people that led to the problem.

A Pumber Fixing a Pipe -Photo courtesy of ©, Image #10979406

Photo courtesy of ©

If you don’t take time to fix both, you’ll end up with the same problem happening again and again.

Some time ago, when I was a publisher at Thomas Nelson, we had a major gaffe with one of our most important authors. In order to protect the guilty, I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say, we dropped the ball in a major way, and it caused a significant author relations problem. So much so, that it took almost two days of my time to fix the problem. I was embarrassed and frustrated.

Obviously, we had to fix the immediate problem. We created a mess, and we had to clean it up. We all understand the necessity—and urgency—of this part of the equation.

But the bigger issue is the breakdown in the process that led to this problem. If we don’t fix this, then we will experience another breakdown in the future. It’s virtually guaranteed. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Great leaders address both issues. They are quick to right wrongs, fix problems, and clean up messes. But, as soon as they get past the initial crisis, they ask the bigger question, “How did this happen and how can we keep it from happening again?”

If you will take time to debrief on the business problems you encounter, you will find that your organization steadily improves. In this sense, there is no failure, only feedback and the opportunity to improve.

Question: What have you learned from a recent problem? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Ashley Denton

    Great post Michael on one of the most important time-savers in the problem solving process. I’ve been training leaders with a technique for isolating the right problem statements so they can more effectively determine what is stopping them from moving forward. If you’d like to read a blog I posted that explains this process of unearthing the problems beneath the problem, here it is… Ideaphoria | Creative Leadership Ideas for a Myriad of Applications |Visionary Leadership

  • John A

    Correct… issue has a bigger issue behind it. This is often a FUNCTIONALITY issue. People having lots to say in areas that don’t involve them …..they need to look after their area of responsibility…….john A

  • Richard Burkey

    I have learned to ask 1st the Andy Stanley question: “Is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?” Worship styles is a tension to manage, fixing a leaky roof (and even more the cause of the leak) is a problem to solve. 

    • Barry Hill


      I love that Andy Stanley question! I am guilty of treating both tension and problems with the same methodology in the past.

  • Daniel Decker

     Very powerful and true.

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  • Gail

    Ask the people at the coal face. I’ve often observed that what management THINK is happening is VERY different that what is REALLY happening. But standing with the person with the pick and digging a little coal with them you get a much better understanding of what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it.

    Those at the coal face may not always have the solution but they sure can tell you a lot about the problem!

  • Romy Singh

    Great Post….

    A Problem Is Creator Of Another Problem. 
    If we want to end our first problem then we have to find an effective solution Immediately. If we are unable to find it then our first problem will lead to other hundreds of  problem. So look for a root of problem then end it from there.

  • PepperVA_Grace

    When I encounter issues, I had the tendency to over analyze the problem since my college days. The repercussion of this mistake makes me realize the importance to focus on the main issues and to address this in an S.M.A.R.T. manner as well as to give importance the value of good communication.
    every single day.

  • Baha

    Wise words.  Thanks

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  • lloyd

    I gotta’ say that way too often I see employers and employees way too focused on “Who caused this?” before the mess has been fixed. Let’s fix the mess, then fix what caused it, and worry about the blame placing after that.

  • Davef

    We had a screw-up at my job, and the CEO asked me, the manager, to find out how it happened. “Right,” I said. “We want to find out how it happened so we can prevent it from happening in the future.” The CEO looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, I want to know who is to blame.”  Needless to say, we did not win any awards for “Best company to work for.”

  • Kent Julian

    Well said, Michael. Very well said! 

    You asked about what we’ve learned from mistakes or problems? Here’s a personal mistake I made recently that result in a big learning curve for me:

  • DentalAccountant

    I agree with this that if we have a problem let’s solve this as soon as possible. Because if we will not do this it well become huge and you it is difficult to solve, am I right? 

  • Wayne

    There is almost always a deeper problem that is the root to the surface problem. If you have not read the book, “The Healing Code”, I strongly recommend it. The doctors who wrote it share a very simple method that goes quickly to the root and heals it, resulting in amazing hearings of all kinds, emotional, mental and physical. Which also effects relational and business.

    This book fits in well with your philosophy of life also.

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