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Find the courage

 18 November 2019     Donald Cooper 

In every business there are surface problems which are actually just symptoms of much deeper problems; underlying problems; and finally, the real or basic problems that are the root cause of what’s going wrong.

There’s a tendency for all of us as managers to focus on the surface symptoms and not on the underlying and real basic problems because the surface problems are more obvious, easier to address and much less threatening. Dealing with surface problems allows us to point a finger at someone else, rather than ourselves. But we’ll never solve anything without digging deeper, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

Let’s use a medical example of symptoms, underlying and basic problems. High blood pressure is really just a symptom of a number of underlying issues like consuming too much salt and too many calories, not drinking enough water, physical and emotional stress, or not exercising enough. But the real basic problem could be lack of information or motivation, toxic lifestyle or career choices, unhappiness, lack of self-discipline or self-esteem. If we don’t address these real basic problems, the symptom (high blood pressure) will continue.

So, let’s say that your business has an unhealthy bottom line. That could be a symptom of a number of underlying problems like not having a clear and compelling value proposition, ineffective marketing, excessive discounting, not understanding the math of profitability, poor expense control, antiquated information systems, low staff morale, failure to deal with non-performance, failure to make key decisions, etc. Those are all underlying problems.

Or, let’s say that some aspect of your customer service or customer experience aren’t what they need to be. Those are not problems, they’re symptoms of internal problems such as lack of clear expectations or high standards, hiring the wrong people, lack of proper training or effective communication, dysfunctional systems and processes, a negative business culture, no performance measurement, a lack of passion and love of customers, failure to listen to your customers and front-line staff – all of which are all the result of ineffective management and leadership. You don’t fix bad customer service. You fix the underlying and basic problems that are causing it. Remember, “the beginning of wisdom is the recognition of reality.”

For a look at what might be causing service problems in your business, download our one-page Service Challenge Audit Sheet by clicking here and pick Tool #A-2. This will help you determine the underlying causes. You’ll still have to dig deeper to identify the basic problems.

The basic problems, the ones we’re reluctant to identify and deal with could be managers at various levels (including ourselves) who are not aware, focused on other things, not properly trained, don’t have time, are not empowered, not interested or not capable.

As painful as it may be, we must deal with the real problems in our business and not just the surface, or underlying problems. That may require outside perspective and help in some form.

How do you get to the real basic problems? It’s easy – uncomfortable, but easy. Involve the best minds and hearts and courageous truth-sayers in your business. Start by stating what appears to be a problem or shortfall in the business and then say, “Which is caused by {fill in the blank here}?” and list all the causes of that problem or shortfall as best you understand them.

Then, for each of those underlying problems or shortfalls, ask again, “Which is caused by {fill in the blank here}?” Keep asking and answering that question honestly, each time digging deeper and deeper until you get to the real basic cause. That’s the thing or person that needs to be fixed, improved, coached, refocused or dealt with in some other way. Finally, determine what you commit to do to fix or improve it, by when. Most businesses don’t want to do this because the deeper you go in this enquiry, the closer to the top of the organization you get.

This exercise takes both insight and courage, but it’s the only way to get to the real issues that are holding back the business. The alternative is to carry on in blissful denial until it’s too late.


Sealy Canada
Phoenix AMD
This HGO article was written by:
Donald Cooper
Donald Cooper

Donald Cooper has been both a world-class manufacturer and an award-winning retailer. Now, as a business speaker and coach he helps business owners and managers throughout the world to rethink, refocus and re-energize their business to create compelling customer value, clarity of purpose and long-term profitability.


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