Diagnosing Problems

Diagnosing Problems by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by chelle, Available at www.kwajafa.com

Usually, my approach in writing these articles is to challenge your thinking and to attempt to ask thought provoking questions. (Although, I have received some feedback that I’m being too nice. So, in the future, I hope to “push your buttons” more often.) In this article, however, I am going to be more practical and present a simple tool for diagnosing organizational problems and prescribing potential resolution actions.

This will just be an introduction to the concept; my hope is to unpack this further in future articles. As you read this, consider your own methods for diagnosing and resolving organizational problems. Post a comment with your own insights and methods.

In 1993, Robert Terry published an excellent book, “Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action.”1 It was one of the earliest, complete discussions on authentic leadership (a topic for another blog article) and remains one of the best resources on the subject. One of the gold nuggets in that volume is what Terry calls the “Action Wheel.” The Action Wheel is a tool that leaders can use to diagnose problems and determine correct, authentic courses of action to resolve those problems. Appropriately, Terry describes it as an “action-framing”2 tool because it helps leaders frame, or put into proper perspective, the correct course of action for a given issue.

Here are the components of the Action Wheel:

  • Meaning: values, principles, ethics
  • Mission: purpose, goals, objectives
  • Power: energy, motivation, control
  • Structure: systems, policies, procedures
  • Resources: people, capital, information, assets, time
  • Existence: history, identity

Picture the above in a circle — Meaning directs and informs Mission, Mission directs and focuses Power and so on, with Existence completing the circle and giving insight into Meaning.

How can leaders use the Action Wheel to diagnose and determine correct courses of action? To understand this, we first need to recognize that in all situations, leaders are forced to address two basic questions:

  1. What is really going on here?
  2. What should we do about it?

Of course, the trick is to answer the first question accurately. Leaders must exercise a number of leadership disciplines to collect the right information to answer the question about what is really going on. They must ask probing questions. They must listen attentively and without filters. They must give people the freedom to address concerns openly and honestly. In short, they must be authentic and encourage others to be authentic.

For example, imagine a scenario in which employees are complaining that recently implemented policies undermine their ability to do their best work and meet the customers’ needs. The leader correctly identifies this as an issue of Power. That is, the employees responsible for fulfillment of the policies and for care of the customer feel powerless. They have not been consulted in development of the policies. Decisions were “delivered from on high.” They complain that decision makers don’t really understand what it takes to get the job done. These all affect employee energy, motivation, and sense of control. (By the way, this is a description of an actual organizational problem I recently encountered with a client. I would love to see you post a comment sharing your organizational challenges and your diagnosis.)

Having collected this information and identified this as a problem of Power, the leader now needs to address the second question: “What should we do about it?” To answer this question, the leader consults the Action Wheel and backs up a step. In this case, that puts the focus on Mission. Properly implemented, Mission will drive authentic action in organizational Power systems. Since the diagnosis is that there is a problem with Power, corrected action needs to take place in the Mission.

What is the correct action? The answer to that is highly situational. In the actual scenario my example came from, there are problems with leadership not adequately making strong ties between the organization’s purposes and goals and the policies that were implemented. In this case, a more complete diagnosis would also indicate a lack of confidence in Purpose — there is a lack of direction in the senior leadership. The Action Wheel indicates that leaders need to visit corrective action in the area of meaning

As I noted, this is merely an introduction to Terry’s Action Wheel concept. There is enough information here for you to try some informal experimentation in your organization. When you next encounter a problem (just wait a few minutes — another email or phone call is coming!), try out the Action Wheel model. Start by asking and accurately answering “What is really going on here?” Then, identify where that falls on the Action Wheel and back up a step to generate ideas for correct action.

Please post your comments to share your experiences with the Action Wheel. I would also like to hear other ideas for diagnosing problems and resolving them.


1: Terry, Robert W. 1993. Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2: Most of the information for this article comes from chapter 5 in Terry’s book. Significant insights and contribution are also realized from chapter 10 of Northouse, Peter G. 2010. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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