Hidden in Plain Sight: Unraveling Big Problems Disguised as Small Unrelated Issues

Pressure on complex systems can create many small, seemingly un-correlated issues that on the surface seem unrelated to their shared root cause:

  • Falling stock prices create frustration that manifests as dissatisfaction in things like benefits and career growth.
  • A new leader is introduced and their team seems to have all sorts of problems, like anger with collaboration across teams and frustration with company processes and burnout.
  • An operation holds 80% of available RAM in a caching system, which doesn’t cause a page itself, but does cause little, previously benign, spikes to start triggering capacity pages.
  • A person’s baseline stress is elevated from work and causes them to be easily triggered by a series of seemingly unrelated causes.

The instinct of high initiative do-ers will be to tackle each symptom rapidly and independently: let’s look at team boundaries, let’s look at burnout, let’s look at making the product more innovative, let’s look at each thing that burns the caching service, let’s figure out why this person hates slow service. But you find that as fast as you fix little problems, new ones arise, which can be confusing and demoralizing.

The problem is that you are treating symptoms, not the root cause. When pressure is introduced and baselines have risen, otherwise dormant issues cause problems. This concept is powerful and not uncommon.

While the above examples shine a light on these kinds of problems, these problems can still be very difficult to diagnose while they are happening. The diagnostic process looks like the following:

  • Problems start arising in multiple, often unrelated areas.
  • The only explanation seems to be “a bunch of stuff just started being bad at once.”
  • Think: Is it really likely that randomly, all of a sudden, all of these things got bad all at once?
  • Once you have that kernel of an idea, start hunting for the root cause. In technical systems, zooming out can show baseline rises. In people systems, you have to look at common dis-satisfaction drivers, like: the hiring market, company performance, stock price, a new leader.
  • Once you have the root cause, focus relentlessly on that, often in the face of the little problems that are tempting you to focus on them.

Another framing here is that in some cases, there really is something or someone at the root of a bunch of problems, for example:

  • If you have a leader who just seems to attract problems, they are probably the issue. You might spend years hearing excuses for each little thing, and those excuses might seem plausible. In fact, the leader might position themselves as a “trusted person” people are brining problems to when they previously hadn’t. At some point, the fact that the person seems repellent to success is enough evidence they are the pressure introducing problems.
  • If a technical system suddenly starts being much noisier, you need to look at what big changes recently took place. If something seems to line up perfectly, even if all explanations seem to say it’s not the root cause, it’s probably the root cause.

In a world of signal and noise, one of the most powerful skills you can have is to identify foundational trends and search for deeper, driving factors. When the only explanation is unlikely happenstance, zoom out and start looking for more plausible explanations.