How To Diagnose Root Causes & Solve Problems In Your Organization

How To Diagnose Root Causes & Solve Problems In Your Organization

Today I want to talk about nonprofit problem-solving and root causes. More specifically – when something is not working how you want it to in your organization, how you can get to the actual root of the problem, what’s causing it, and where to focus to solve it? 

Let me start with a story.

I worked with an organizational leader who experienced tremendous growth very quickly. He reached out to me because he was experiencing growth pains and couldn’t figure out where to focus to begin to solve the problem. 

There was low simmering negativity on his staff. Tensions in meetings getting in the way of decisions being made… He was getting pulled into a lot of small-scale fires that his leadership team should be able to handle. Staff was expressing confusion about the direction of the organization… 

So when we first started talking, He felt like maybe he had the wrong staff for where the organization was going, and he’d promoted a leadership team internally and was feeling like they weren’t stepping into their leadership, leaving a lot on his plate. 

Over the course of our work, we were actually able to pinpoint and diagnose the true roots of the problem – which were not what he’d anticipated. 

They had grown quickly and as a result, the ED wasn’t able to spend the time with the staff that he spent when they were starting out and just growing. He would be at every staff meeting, and front and center at every rally and town hall, and now his deputy played that role internally and his director of grassroots advocacy held the community partnership relationships. It was absolutely the right direction for the ED to be moving but it created turmoil. 

Looking at it and living it, he thought the problem was a structural one – the wrong people in the wrong roles. 

In truth, there were deeper issues around shifts in the culture and how the team worked together generally, and with him — unmet unspoken expectations and feelings of loss and betrayal as staff felt like they had less access. There were issues created by shifting authority and ownership, and by changes in how information was being shared across the information. 

Very specific root causes. 

The tool that we used the unearth these root causes was the building blocks of organizational design.

At its core, organizational design is about the intentional choices you make in designing your organization’s structure, culture, and processes. 

Every organization is made up of the same 10 core building blocks.  You can organize the building blocks in different ways to address different challenges, ask different questions, and position yourself for growth and stability in the future. 

The idea is that we don’t build our organizations at 30,000 feet. Instead, we design them by being intentional about what’s happening on the ground and then building up from there. 

We make decisions as we move along about each of the building blocks, and they add up to an organization that we are proud of.  

So how does this help with problem-solving? 

Because you can diagnose a problem most effectively and accurately by notching down to examine and explore the most basic elements of your organization at a granular level. 


I have a great free tool that you can download about this – the Organizational Design Audit Tool

I also do a deeper dive into the entire framework in my past episode about organizational design: How To Design Your Organization That You’re Proud Of, From The Ground Up.  


What I want to do today is actually give you a concrete activity that you can do with your team to diagnose and address organizational challenges and tensions.

So first, the building blocks: 

And I go through these in more depth in the podcast episode I just mentioned. 

There are 10 core building blocks. These are the DNA of any organization.  They are: 

  • Purpose
  • Strategy 
  • Structure
  • Resources 
  • Meetings
  • Information & Workflow
  • Authority 
  • Compensation
  • Culture & Norms
  • Mastery & Innovation


There are two ways to use these building blocks to solve problems. 

For both of these, start with making sure everyone is on the same page about what each building block means. You can use my free Organizational Design Audit Tool as a starting point. 


So, first, you can conduct an audit. Gather your team, board, and stakeholders – anyone who has insight into the organization – and go box by box:  How are we doing things, how do we want to be doing things, and how are these aligned or misaligned? 

You can ask: What’s working and what’s not with respect to this building block? Our structure, our way of approaching mastery and failure, how we meet, and how we demonstrate value through compensation. How are we currently doing things? How do we ideally want to be doing things? And are these two things aligned? 

This will unearth points of misalignment that you and your team may not have been aware of. 

The second way you can use this tool is as a pointed diagnostic tool: Instead of going box by box, you start more broadly with the question: Where do you feel like we’re experiencing tension or friction? You could ask, where are we not aligned with our values? Your pointed question will be shaped by the nature of your diagnostic inquiry – what’s the thing you’re trying to address? The key here is that you start with a broad question and then each person identifies the boxes in which they feel there is tension. 

You’ll see where there’s agreement or resonance and you focus your energy there.

That’s how we worked with the organization I was telling you about. What bubbled to the surface was that the root cause of the growing tension wasn’t actually a problem with the structure – who held which role? It was about shifts that were happening in the organization’s culture and norms that needed to be named and engaged with as a team so that they could move forward together.  

So this is a powerful leadership and cultural alignment tool and I highly recommend adding it to your arsenal.

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