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Symptoms vs Sources in Project Management

Successful project management requires developing your soft skills.

Project management skills require the ability to solve an unending series of issues. You create a plan that includes contingencies and yet, when humans are involved there will always be opportunities for conflicts to arise. As a professional, you understand that people-problems can be the most difficult to identify and resolve. It is important that we use our limited energy to determine sources of dysfunction rather than chasing after symptoms.  

When someone near you sneezes, do you brace yourself and think, “Great, now I’m going to get sick?” You experience the external symptom and know it reveals that this person has either had a reaction to something or that they are ill. The sneeze could carry particles of some disease that will spread to yourself and others. You may say, “Bless you,” or offer your favorite remedies for the common cold. 

You know that when someone sneezes (symptom) there is an underlying source. 

On the other hand, in business, you experience dysfunction all the time and yet get sidetracked by thinking solely about the symptoms. Symptoms are what attract our attention when sources are where solutions must be applied. As a person in a position of leadership, it is important to intentionally develop your ability to decipher the nuances between symptoms and sources if you want to be effective with leading your team. 

What is the difference between a symptom and the source when addressing dysfunction? 

The online Oxford Dictionary definition of a symptom (noun) is, “A physical or mental feature which is regarded as indicating a condition of disease, particularly such a feature that is apparent to the patient.”

When used in a sentence, Dental problems may be a symptom of other illness.”

What do you do when you begin to experience tooth pain? The pain is a symptom of some source. It could be a cavity, a sensitive tooth or something much greater such as decay or infection. Ibuprofen may temporarily treat the symptom of pain but it will not address the source. After a few days of increasing discomfort, you decide to go to the dentist to determine the issue and discuss solutions.  

Interestingly, the online Oxford Dictionary uses another example which is apropos both to our culture as well as the business environment, “A sign of the existence of something, especially of an undesirable situation.”

The second sentence utilization from Oxford states, “The government was plagued by leaks—a symptom of divisions and poor morale.”

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In the example, leaks (symptom) in the government were caused by divisions and poor morale (source). I would add that division and poor morale are symptoms of lack of trust and unwillingness to set aside ego for the greater good. When human interactions are involved, the source versus symptom discussion has layers of complexity. 

  • Dysfunction, like the common cold, affects your team’s ability to perform their duties. 
  • External symptoms expose underlying internal issues.
  • To treat a symptom like dysfunction, you must uncover the source(s).
  • When symptoms are left untreated, they invite a host of other symptoms and sources.

As a project manager, as well as a person in a position of leadership, you can either peel back the layers of symptoms to address sources or the layers of symptoms can build until they overwhelm your resources and suck the life from your organization. Successful project management includes developing your people management (aka soft) skills.  Explore beneath the surface to determine what sources in your team are causing these dysfunctional symptoms. Addressing one layer of symptoms and sources will likely lead to opening another layer. 

  • Be mindful of your culture: Is there a clear process that empowers team members, at any level, to bring issues before the team so that they can be discussed? In his book, Joy Inc., CEO Richard Sheridan talks about the importance of a culture of open communication. He says, “What I hope is that we’ve created a system that exposes these problems sooner, so that we can deal with them while they are still small.” Sheridan discusses the role of the leader in removing fear from the team so that there is freedom to bring up issues and the empowerment to experiment with creative solutions. 
  • Expand your input channels: In this rapidly evolving business climate, it is foolish for anyone in a position of leadership to believe that they will be able to identify all of the issues as well as come up with all of the solutions. Former Navy Seal team leader, Jocko Willink states, “A leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Sometimes, another member of the team—perhaps a subordinate or direct report—might be in a better position to develop a plan, make a decision, or lead through a specific situation.” 
  • Develop your process: When you see issues arise, don’t be distracted by the symptom, dig into the sources. There is a difference between a negative outburst based in egos and a conflict which exposes an issue within your organization. A strong organizational culture is not afraid of constructive conflict and will navigate the process to strengthen the team.

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