Take Two Aspirin

As we all know, when we have a cough, the best thing to do is to visit a Cough Doctor. When we have a fever, we visit a Fever Doctor. Also, when our car is making a funny knocking noise in the key of C, we take the car to a mechanic who specializes in funny knocking noises in the key of C. Or maybe we just hope the problem will go away because the only mechanics we know deal with knocking noises in the key of B.

Okay, so maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration. We don’t actually look for Cough Doctors or Fever Doctors and I very much doubt that anyone outside Car Talk would ask if the knocking noise is in the key of C. When we go to the doctor because of a cough or a fever, we go because the doctor understands, or can figure out, why we have that cough or fever. When we take the car to the mechanic because of that weird knocking noise, it’s because we’re hoping that the mechanic can figure out why that noise is happening and what it means. We go to the doctor or the mechanic because of our symptoms, but we don’t go to Symptom Doctors. To be fair, Symptom Doctors are great when all we have is a cold: take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

The fact is, treating symptoms can make us feel a lot better. Having a fever isn’t much fun, and a couple of aspirin can work wonders. Of course, if that fever is because we have the flu, then maybe suppressing it isn’t the best thing to do. That knocking noise from the left rear wheel can be easily tuned out by simply playing the radio loudly enough. Then we don’t have to worry about it until the wheel comes off. Hopefully, this happens while we’re at the gas station and not when we’re traveling at 65 mph on the freeway. Treating symptoms doesn’t make the underlying cause go away, it just lets us feel good. Therein lies the problem.

The symptoms we see are only that: the symptoms. That cough and fever might be a mild cold or it might be the flu. That knocking noise might be nothing or it might be a wheel getting ready to declare its independence from the collective body that is your car. When it comes to fevers and coughs, we can usually tell what’s going on and most of the time the consequences of being wrong are only inconvenient or a bit uncomfortable. With cars, most of us are not quite so good at figuring out what the noise means, while a trained mechanic can do it in minutes or seconds. Not only do they know what it means, they also know the cause, and which parts of the car are affected. The symptoms enable them to identify the problem, and by treating the problem, they also make the symptoms go away. The converse, as we’ve discussed, is not true.

So why would anyone call a Symptom Doctor? Well, just treating the symptoms makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. We feel better for a brief time. Most important of all, we feel successful. When the symptoms return, we just want them to go away again and we want to feel successful again. So we call the Symptom Doctor back and once again the symptoms go away for a brief period.

In one situation, a certain engineering manager had a team that was always argumentative to the point of being unable to reach agreement on anything. After carefully observing the situation, he decided the problem was that Joe disagreed with everyone too much. Joe had a “difficult personality” and hence was the cause of team’s problems. He fired Joe. Lo and behold, everyone stopped arguing. The manager was very proud of himself for solving the problem. Four months later, a different member of the team had revealed herself to have a “difficult personality.” That’s right, the arguments and lack of agreement had returned in force. Firing Joe hadn’t solved anything; it had simply made the symptoms disappear for a short time. When they reappeared, they were worse than before.

Now, in this particular example, the manager was his own Symptom Doctor. Symptom Doctors can also be brought in from outside: companies hire “Decision Consultants,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Don’t Listen,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Listen Too Much,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Listen With Their Head Cocked At A Funny Angle.” Okay, maybe the last one is a joke. The results of going to a Symptom Doctor, however, are rarely a joke. They are wasted time, wasted energy, and lost resources.

So what do you do instead? Like going to the doctor or the mechanic, you need someone who can understand what is going on. Not a Symptom Doctor, but someone who either knows, or can figure out, what the symptoms mean. It may not be as cheap or as easy as going to a Symptom Doctor, but, unlike the Symptom Doctor, it just might solve your problem.

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