Stage 2.1  Identifying Problems

The most important thing to remember about diagnosis is to beware of the obvious. At the beginning the most obvious "problem" will be the pain or the need that the clients say they feel. However, most problems have several layers. The topmost layer is what the physician calls the "patient's complaint." It is the initial concern that led the client to seek help. The change agent may choose to work only at this level, reasoning that the clients' initial definition of what is bothering them is a valid and sufficient expression of the real problem. Usually, however, this will not be quite enough, and most change agents would do well to make a brief survey of the surface symptoms. You should therefore ask:

  •              what other things are wrong?
  •             are there other indications of system malfunction?

 If the original stated problem was "low achievement test scores in this school," you may want to ask if there is also evidence of:

  • poverty,
  • racial conflict among students,
  • high teacher turnover,
  • crumbling infrastructure,
  • classroom disruption
  • and so forth.

Second Level Elements

These different problems should be listed and looked at together to see if they show a common pattern. When you have assembled these surface symptoms you may want to probe further to get at some of the less obvious factors that lie beneath them. Here you might look for certain attitudes and beliefs on the part of key stakeholders, which led to the outbreak of those symptoms.

             e.g. in business: customers, workers, middle management, leadership, stockholders, sales staff, competitors

                    in education: students, parents, teachers, or administrators

You may also find that there are features of the working or learning climate or the system structure, which breed such surface symptoms. These various second­ level elements should also be identified and weighed.


Underlying Causes

At a still deeper level, you may wish to interpret the evidence and infer underlying causes. You might conclude from a thorough analysis of surface symptoms, such as low productivity or achievement scores, the second-layer features, such as lagging sales, low classroom involvement and parent or customer indifference. Such"depth" interpretations may be valid and valuable in some circumstances, but a change agent should always judge them on two criteria:

  • Does the interpretation stem from an honest and objective analysis of the available evidence?
  • Is it useful in helping us understand what sort of solution we should be looking for?

Sometimes an analysis of underlying causes may suggest solutions that would never be apparent at a more superficial level. On the other hand, deep causal interpretations are sometimes irrelevant to the search for solutions and can delay constructive work. As a pragmatic and practical change agent you can choose to work on any level of problem definition, but you should be aware that there are other levels and that successful problem-solving can proceed from these levels also. Regardless of which level you choose, as a change agent you should be sensitive to the clients' self-perceptions as well as their willingness and ability to define the problem on the same level that you have defined it.

Identifying Problems: Other Quotable Sources

"If the system is currently in pain or trouble, this in itself may generate defensive obstacles to accurate self-diagnosis. The pain may be so great that attention is riveted upon systems; the client's only clear thought is that the symptoms must be removed. At the same time, both individuals and groups may be afflicted by a motivated inability to see their own responsibility for their pain: it is hard to admit one's own shortcomings, whether they be simple disabilities or complex expressions of hostility and destructiveness. Moreover, the factors which permitted the system to get into trouble in the first place are still working to sustain the trouble and block alternative courses of action."  Lippitt, Watson, & Westley 2