Stage 2.6   Diagnostic Pitfalls

Although careful examination of the problem is an important step in the change process, it can also be a trap for the change agent if it is not handled properly. There are at least five patterns which the change agent should be careful to avoid:

  • Examining To Death: Too Much Diagnosis
  • Studying The Problem As A Patiern Of Avoidance
  • Using Diagnosis For Destructive Confrontation
  • Imposing Your Own Favorite Diagnosis
  • Fire Fighting

Too Much Diagnosis

Sometimes change agents can get stuck on diagnosis, using up most of their time and energy just in the process of defining the problem. This is not only wasteful, but may have very negative side effects. For example, clients may begin to feel so overwhelmed by the number of problems coming to light that they cannot take constructive action. In some cases, they may also begin to feel overwhelmed by the hopeless­ness of their situation and in other cases they may become very defensive, sheltering themselves from the bad news and perhaps rejecting the change agent in the process.

In the preceding section we suggested a systematic and comprehensive approach to diagnosis, but this does not mean that you must be exhaustive. On most questions you will have to be satisfied with sketchy and partial answers; your diagnosis may not get you an "A" in survey research but that is not your purpose. The diagnosis should merely be adequate for giving you a good general picture of the client's situation.


Studying the Problem as a Pattern of Avoidance

Diagnostic studies can be used by a client as a way of stalling or putting off needed changes. The call for "further study" is a familiar form of brush-off. Change-minded members of the client system may therefore be understandably restless and suspicious of prolonged diagnostic activity by the change agent. The change agent should not only get to it, but should also get through it and move on to the other steps in the change process.


Using Diagnosis for Destructive Confrontation

Your perception of serious defects and urgent problems may incline you to speak to the client in very blunt terms. You may do this as a deliberate attempt to unfreeze the client system, to shock members into awareness of their needs and the necessity of change. If you pursue such a strategy, you should realize what the consequences could be. You should, above all, have a good estimate of how much your client can take. The biggest danger is that such a confrontation will destroy the relationship that you have with your client. If the members of the client system reject you completely because they cannot accept your drastic diagnosis, then all your labors may be lost.

 Even when you as change agent do not intend a confrontation, you should be aware of the negative power of the information you are gathering. It may make the clients feel stupid, childish, naive, or incompetent. Such self-images will not give them the motivation to change. Therefore, the form and timing of diagnostic presentations is critical. Too much bad news too suddenly is a circumstance to be avoided. As noted earlier, diagnostic analysis should include positive information as well as negative, and should be cast in a constructive form, which makes it amenable to solutions and encourages the belief that solutions are possible.

On the other hand, if, (and it is a big 'if,') the members of the client system can accept confrontation, they may come to respect your honesty and may be moved to work more actively with you to bring about change. The use or avoidance of a strategy of confrontation is a difficult matter to resolve; it is a dilemma which illustrates the importance of assessing the basic strengths of your clients as well as their weaknesses.

Imposing Your Own Favorite Diagnosis

It is very difficult for experts in one particular area to be truly objective in their diagnostic approach. Most of us tend to see our own specialty as the important area. If our skills are in the area of human relations training, for example, we will be more inclined to see a client's problems as human relations problems; if our skills are in the area of systems engineering we may see the client's problems in terms of planning, organization, and quality control; if we are curriculum specialists we will see problems primarily in terms of course content. We all have these professional blinders and it is natural and inevitable that we do. However, as a change agent, even if you see your role as that of a solution giver rather than a process helper3, you should be aware of your limited perspective and should consciously strive to avoid imposing your favorite diagnosis on the client.

Fire Fighting

Finally, the change agent should avoid falling into the opposite trap of attending only to those problems which the client sees as immediate and important. Meaningful and lasting changes are more likely to come about if they are based on careful planning from a well-rounded and reason­ably comprehensive diagnosis. Many clients may not ap­preciate this fact initially; they may see their problems as fires that bave to be put out now before anything else is done, and they may want to cast you in the role of firefighters. Some­times you may have to accept such a role briefly if only to prove that you are somebody who is useful, but it is a potential trap. In the long run, fire fighting is a waste of your energy and your client's resources, for it rarely precipitates real and lasting change.



"The change agent must become a 'probability expert.' He should be a gambling man, who eschews 'sure bets' and 'long shots' simultaneously. But like a professional gambler, he should seek the bets that give him a probability ability edge over chance. This is ­ the best he can do in immediately confronting the problem."  Bennis, Benne, & Chin 8

"The diagnostic orientation of the change agent is in many ways a self-fulfilling prediction. If he looks for difficulties in commu­nication ... he will find them; ... The orientation of the change agent is a primary factor in determining the 'facts' which the client system will discover to be true about its own situation."  Lippitt, Watson, & Westley 9