Why It Isn’t “Negative” to Begin With Symptoms

Whilst there are exceptions, we generally recommend our Symptoms of What’s Not Working Diagnostic as the starting point for engaging with Value Management. Here, we explain why, and how – far from being negative – this approach reflects reality, accelerates change and clears the way for progress.

One of the questions we often get asked is why we usually recommend beginning Value Management with our Symptoms of What’s Not Working Diagnostic.

[There are exceptions, but in the absence of a good reason not to, this remains our default starting point.]

For context, this diagnostic invites people to evaluate the extent to which they are experiencing common issues – or “symptoms” – associated with today’s Complex environment.

These symptoms are indicators of where key Things That Matter aren’t working:

• Perhaps the wrong approach is being taken.
• Perhaps those involved aren’t aligned on the Things That Matter.
• Perhaps the key Things That Matter haven’t even been surfaced, and considered and understood.

The framing of the “why start with the symptoms diagnostic?” question we get asked then usually involves one or more of the following:

  • Isn’t it negative and demotivating to start by assuming things are going wrong?
  • How does dwelling on what’s going wrong achieve anything and move things forward?
  • What about the Things That Matter where there aren’t issues? What about our goals and values? Why only focus on the problems?

The answer to these questions means seeing how the diagnostic:

  • Faces what is usually a difficult reality that is often avoided.
  • Builds a case for change that it is the first step in a wider process.
  • Complements, and helps clear the way, for a focus on more “positive” goals and values.”

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Facing a Difficult Reality

Isn’t it negative and demotivating to start by assuming things are going wrong?

It’s true that we do sometimes find situations where there are no issues, the Things That Matter are clear, and the only task for Value Management is to accelerate and consolidate positive progress.

(Although, even then, the symptoms diagnostic can highlight simmering discontent or traps that might threaten derailment just around the corner, such that it functions as a recommended precautionary check.)

It’s also true that we sometimes find situations where those involved aren’t really sure if there are issues or not (at which point we still recommend the symptoms diagnostic as the best way to find this out).

However, far more common is that it is clear there are issues: sometimes this is inferred from overall results (often reflective of our Expectations Curve), but the difficulties faced are more often a dominant lived reality.

A good example comes from a recent industry event I attended about building relationship trust, where participants were asked in real time to summarise their experience in key supply ecosystem relationships, and a word cloud was automatically generated (NB: permission to take and share pictures from the event was explicitly granted, although we have removed personal and organisational details):

No doubt in each of the relationships reflected here there are positive outcomes targeted, values that the parties involved want to see reflected, and a genuine desire to achieve trust.

But what is unavoidably clear is that there are huge problems, and therefore a huge mismatch between what those involved presumably want to be the case and the current reality.

Over time, we believe Value Management can start to change this picture, but – for now – it clearly is a reasonable assumption that there are usually things going wrong, and usually seriously wrong.

So, no, starting by default with the symptoms diagnostic is not “negative and demotivating“:

  • In the rare situations where things are actually fine – even if an expected outcome of the diagnostic – this is then clearly evidenced, building motivation and morale (and there is also clarity about traps to avoid).
  • Everywhere else, though, reality is being faced, which reverses the truly “negative and demotivating” tendencies to deny or ignore it.

And facing that reality is the start of a case and a process for change.

A Case and Process for Change

How does dwelling on what’s going wrong achieve anything and move things forward?

Too often, people know that things are sub-optimal at best – dire at worst – and yet very little happens. Why?

To begin with, because there isn’t clarity and consensus of exactly what the issues are, which is what the symptoms diagnostic addresses through:

  • Understanding: going beyond a general sense that things are really difficult to pinpoint where pain is being felt.
  • Alignment: engagement at scale to surface and resolve different experiences of – and perspectives on – what that pain means in practice.
  • Focus: indicating the areas that need targeting most urgently and for greatest impact.

But, if that’s where things stopped, things wouldn’t move forward, we largely would be “dwelling on what’s going wrong“, and we’d not be a million miles away from just offering another survey, albeit a more direct and frank one.

And this is precisely why the symptoms diagnostic doesn’t stop at achieving understanding, alignment and focus – which, even if the diagnostic does these things “better”, leaves things static – but instead moves things forward in two key ways.

Firstly, through engaging at scale around areas normally ignored or side-stepped, the symptoms diagnostic provides compelling evidence and material for a business case, demanding that change happen and advocating that resources be allocated to do so – perhaps for the first time.

After all, as established long ago in the world of successful selling, for there to be any change, there needs to be a current state for Things That Matter which is uncomfortable and that has negative implications if not addressed (and which have to be as deeply felt as possible, without leading to despair).

Secondly, though, the symptoms diagnostic is only the first step in a wider Things That Matter-centred process that delivers the other requirement for change: a desired state which is attractive, has value and seems to be attainable.

And our wider process makes progress attainable here in both depth and breadth:

  • Depth: capturing and refining the Things That Matter associated with the surfaced symptoms such that a desired state can be articulated for each, ahead of making them measurable through Value Coding.
  • Breadth: dealing with the issues currently standing in the way of Value to then widen and/or return the focus to what that Value truly is (and where identical depth can then be achieved on the Things That Matter).

Let’s now look at the “breadth” angle a little bit more.

Getting (Back) to Value

What about the Things That Matter where there aren’t issues? What about our goals and values? Why only focus on the problems?

And so we hit our final “objection”, which reflects two misunderstandings about the purpose and function of focusing on symptoms – that it is an end in and of itself, and that it is a narrow alternative to focusing on “positives”.

Both misunderstandings are resolved when understanding the necessity of first dealing with symptoms and their associated Things That Matter – or at least beginning to deal with them – to then be able to make meaningful progress towards “positive” Things That Matter.

This is why so many change initiatives – articulating “shared values”, implementing collaborative working, switching to relational contracting, doing behavioural training – either fail wholesale or don’t deliver the hoped-for transformation:

  • They don’t recognise that values, collaboration, relationships and behaviours primarily emerge from underlying Things That Matter.
  • The symptoms reflect that there are key Things That Matter not working, such that the foundation such initiatives are attempting to build on is compromised.
  • Perhaps most basically, focusing on “positives” when the current reality is “negative” is at best frustrating and unattainable; at worst, it is almost insultingly incongruous.

So, no, the symptoms diagnostic is not an end in and of itself; instead, it is absolutely the first step in a wider process that aims to get (back) on track.

Because of course there are more Things That Matter than just those going “wrong”… but you can’t meaningfully get to “positives” if you sidestep these issues.

And so the symptoms diagnostic is also absolutely not an alternative to focusing on these “positives”; instead, it is the enabler for doing so.

But what about you? Are you ready to face the challenge of the Symptoms of What’s Not Working Diagnostic – the challenge to truly face and start dealing with reality, make the case for change and get back to Value?