Queen's University IRC

The Magic of Diagnosis – Part 1


Brenda Barker Scott
Queen’s IRC Facilitator

February 1, 2006

At its core, facilitating organizational change is about energizing the right people to design and execute smart strategies. As sociologist Philip Selznik says: “Strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy.” Read on for part one of an article that details how diagnosis lights that flame.

A few years ago, under the direction of a new plant manager, the HR manager of a huge Canadian company approached us to complete a whole systems operational assessment and develop a set of recommendations for improvement. We advised an alternative approach, suggesting that I would facilitate the work of a steering team who would guide this critical work and create the action plan. While the HR manager was intrigued with the approach, she declined, saying she had no time, that the new plant manager wanted the recommendations yesterday. Sound familiar?

We gave her the names of several consulting firms and the assessment was duly completed. Two years later she called us back and informed us that thousands of dollars later and with the consulting report in their hands, none of the recommendations had been implemented. I asked why, and her answer confirmed a deep truth about enabling change; in essence she said that because the senior managers and critical others were not involved with the diagnosis, they did not support or agree with their commendations. They had a strategy with no resources committed to making it happen.

We think experts are a very valuable source of information and encourage change teams to hear from different experts to educate, inform, and stretch their thinking. But what’s important is that they integrate information with their own. No outside expert can possibly know what is right for an organization.

Why do we as change leaders always want to jump past diagnosis and move right into strategy? Could it be that, as leaders, we are squeamishly uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity? We need to rush to action, any action, because action means leadership? Or is that we simply do not appreciate that change is about learning, and if the right people are not involved in a discovery process that enables them to learn together, they will not be ready to facilitate collective actions?

Rushing into action has two main downsides. One is the high likelihood of an exercise in futility, just like the example described above. If we get our diagnosis wrong, by default our plan will solve the wrong issue. Let’s say for example, that the problem your team is confronting is that your organization’s strategy is not being operationalized. You might jump to the conclusion that your leaders are the problem; they aren’t competent enough to do what it takes. But when you make assumptions like this, you are likely to find yourself having déjà vu: no matter how often you coach or replace the offenders, the problem will recur again and again if you’re addressing the wrong cause.

The other problem with plunging reactively into action is that it shuts things down before the creativity that is in the system can be revealed. This may seem counterintuitive but by spending time in understanding the why behind issues, the what and how become much clearer. Quite simply, the more you diagnose and expand your perception of what is, the more you expand the possibilities for action.

Take the case of a team we worked with that was in the exploratory, diagnostic stage of an organizational design effort. The steering team members couldn’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing the answer, and felt the need to create something. So they sat down one evening and designed their organization based on what they knew so far.

Months later, we compared their early attempt to the one created after a proper diagnosis. It was very instructive. The first exercise yielded something along the lines of what had existed and wasn’t working. The next iteration, however, was a total departure from the traditional hierarchical structure, based on networks and relationships – just what the organization needed.

This is a perfect illustration of our need to hold on tight to structures and answers and get there quickly – and of how this limit sour ability to allow creative solutions to arise from a deep sense of purpose.

In contrast, taking time in the diagnosis phase lets you uncover what is going on – and that knowledge yields both the best solutions, and just as important, the energy for change. Deep diagnosis ensures that people will be committed to solving big issues and doing whatever it takes to make change happen. Having a solid appreciation and understanding of what is naturally enables people to make good decisions about what can be.

To read Part 2 of this article click here

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