I had an interesting conversation with Pam Hege this morning. It started with a discussion of clients asking to solve a particular problem–but the wrong problem.

As consultants, we see this issue a lot. People call having an issue that’s urgent, but it’s not THE problem.

It seems to be human nature to focus on crises. We ignore something that may be a problem or are oblivious to it until a crisis occurs. The challenge is that often the crises masks the real problem. But since we focus on the crisis at hand, we mobilize the organization to “fix the problem.” In the end, two things happen, we either fix the symptom or we are diverted by another crisis so we end up fixing nothing.

To drive real sustainable change and the consequent results, we have to focus on THE problem—or at least something that’s deeper than the symptom.

But how do we start to do that?

It’s actually not that difficult. When we identify a problem–it may be the result of a crisis, before we rush to solve it, we need to ask ourselves, “Why?”

“Why is this a problem?” We have to answer this in a thoughtful way, inevitably it points us to a slightly deeper understanding of the issues.

But we can’t stop there, we have to force ourselves to ask Why again.

As with the first Why, we start pulling back the onion a little more. We begin to understand the symptom isn’t the real problem, there are some other things that are causing this problem. If we had rushed out to solve the crisis, we wouldn’t have solved the real problem, so it would become a crisis again.

To often, I see organizations solving the same problem over and over–sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways, but it never ends–it’s because they haven’t taken the time to ask why.

But two Why’s isn’t enough. We need to drill down three more times (for a total of 5 Why’s) to understand the real issues. It’s this inspection that enables us to identify the real issues that are being masked by the problems we see in being crisis managers.

The most important problem to solve is never the crisis. The most important problem to solve is the problem that results in the crisis. To identify that problem, you have to dig deep. Take the time to do it–the problem you end up solving will eliminate numerous other problems–and may not be that difficult to solve in the first place.

As a postscript, this is a powerful diagnostic to use with your customers. Our job is to help our customers solve their problems. They do the same things we do in solving problems-they respond to the crisis. Sometimes the insight or challenge we bring is getting the customer to drill down by asking why. Helping customers discover and solve the real problem is the ultimate in value creation.