Training Industry

Addressing the Problem, Not Just the Symptoms

  • Addressing the Problem, Not Just the Symptoms

A previous post introduced basic concepts from systems thinking. The concepts were illustrated with one systems archetype (“Fixes that Fail”) that helps leaders avoid the trap of applying a short-term solution that worsens the situation in the long run. “Shifting the Burden” is another systems archetype. It illustrates the undermining effect of trying to deal with a problem by concentrating on its symptoms. Resistance to a change initiative provides a useful example of applying this archetype.

When faced with resistance to a change initiative, it is important to know if employees are pushing back against the initiative simply because they are comfortable with status quo or if the push back is a symptom of problems with the initiative or its implementation. Many times people resist a change because they don’t have the tools to make it work, they don’t see any intrinsic or extrinsic reward for the new approach, or they are unclear whether it aligns with the tasks that they are required to accomplish. Understanding such concerns and dealing with challenges they represent is a fundamental way to strengthen an initiative. However, it requires first listening to the resisters, getting a grasp on their doubts, and identifying and addressing the underlying problems—serious work that can take time and financial investment.

The time and investment needed to resolve issues with the change or its implementation can be intimidating. It is tempting to believe that the same results are possible by just fixing the symptoms—by giving resisters a “do-it-or-else” order or just shifting them out of the area affected by the change. Doing so is likely to create an atmosphere of fear—or at best reluctant compliance. Problems remain hidden, but don’t go away. Resistance is likely to increase, often covertly.

The “Shifting the Burden” archetype (illustrated below) can shed light this situation. It shows how concentrating on symptoms, rather than identifying and correct the underlying problems, is self-fulfilling—it leads to more and more dependence on fixing symptoms rather than identifying and rectifying the issues driving the symptoms. 


Consider an example of an effective team of professionals who had worked together for several years evaluating and reporting on safety data. They were mandated to use a new process, developed by a sister organization and designed for a different type of data. Front-line employees were clear about how the differences in the data and the methodology for gathering it made the new techniques inappropriate for their work. Nonetheless, the message the team members received was clear, do it or find another place to work. Each team member could articulate how the new approach would lead to problems if they used it—and did so often amongst themselves. After 18 months of applying the wrong process and producing an inferior product, the new technique was abandoned. This could have been avoided by thinking through the message of “Shifting the Burden.”

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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