Symptoms vs. Root Cause

Agency growth plateau: What to do when it happens to you
Written by: Karl Sakas

I went to my doctor after several days of abdominal pain, when my self-treatment hadn’t worked and I couldn’t sleep. Based on the symptoms and my history, my doctor assumed it was a gastrointestinal problem.

That’s the tricky thing about symptoms—different problems can have the same symptoms. Individual symptoms don’t tell you the real root cause(s).

You also may have uncommon symptoms, or may even be asymptomatic. My regular doctor noted that appendicitis was possible—but unlikely, given that it sends most people to the hospital within 24 hours.

That evening, I felt better. But a few days later, I felt worse, and headed to the emergency room. The CT scan revealed what had really happened—I had appendicitis. When I felt better earlier that week, it was probably because my appendix had just ruptured.

(Good news—I’m OK and I’m recovering!)

Agency application: Symptoms aren’t the root cause of your problems

I mention this medical story because it applies to troubleshooting problems at your agency, too—your symptoms aren’t the underlying root cause(s) of your problems.

Here are some symptoms I hear from agency owners:

Those don’t directly tell me the root cause, but observing the combination of symptoms (and asking good followup questions) helps me isolate and diagnose the real problem(s).

Finding the Root Cause

For my appendicitis, the CT scan gave the definitive diagnosis. In retrospect, a blood test at my primary care provider might have caught things earlier, even when I didn’t have the typical fever and nausea.

In my work advising agencies as a digital agency coach and consultant, I use several tools to help me convert symptoms into root cause(s) so I can help agencies fix problems:

  • Pre-Intake Survey (part of my pre-sales process)
  • Sales Call (as I determine if there’s a fit)
  • Client Intake Questionnaire (for new clients)
  • DiSC Behavioral Assessment (for new coaching clients)
  • Culture Survey (anonymous survey of employees)
  • Financial Analysis (for patterns and trends)

A friend is a physician assistant (PA) for an urgent care practice. He noted that 80% of a medical diagnosis typically comes from the “history”—the patient’s description of the onset of symptoms. Tests and observation help fill in the gaps. (Although as we’ve seen, this sometimes means missing unusual root cases!) Asking the right questions—based on specialized experience—is a powerful tool, whether via a survey or a conversation.

Question: How do you approach finding the root cause of problems at your agency?

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