Practice Three for the leader is to discover the root cause. There are times when you may discover that what you believed was the primary root cause is actually the secondary cause. For example, many believed the COVID-19 pandemic was the root cause of their organizational struggles. But when they dug deeper, they found a different underlying foundational problem. The pandemic revealed the true root cause. They had to take their time to move fast.
For example, some schools (universities included) neither had enough adaptable instructors nor the flexible infrastructure to support the various learning modalities of 21st-century students. The students had to physically come into the classroom to hear a lecture. The pandemic revealed to the schools that they needed to create learning environments inside and outside of the traditional building. It further revealed that having instructors who could learn, teach, and adjust on the fly was essential to becoming an adaptable educational institution.
When working to discover the root cause of a crisis, it is imperative to trust the team that has been assigned to lead in this effort. It is just as important to verify the data. This requires having conversations throughout the organization from entry-level employees to senior executives. Having various and diverse perspectives will provide multiple data points that will help in the determination of the root cause.
A point that cannot be overstated is good leaders ask great questions. Former Chairman of the Board for Intel Corporation Andy Bryant remarked, “I don’t always have the answers but I know what questions to ask.” In the attempt to unearth underlying problems, take on the role of a consultant who has been brought in as an expert in this area. Peter Drucker said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” John Maxwell commented, “Successful leaders relentlessly ask questions and have an incurable desire to pick the brains of the people they meet.” The first answer (pandemic) may not be the right answer (inflexible instructors and a rigid infrastructure that cannot meet the demands of current and prospective students). Continue to ask questions relentlessly.
During a crisis, ascertaining the root cause becomes job one. Ensure the organization is working collectively on the same goal. How important is this? If you are in a boat in the middle of the sea and the boat begins to sink, everything else becomes secondary to determining the cause of the sinking boat and fixing it. This is not the time for competing priorities. The primary leader must communicate job one.