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The Dangers of Diagnostics
David Creelman

There are two approaches to diagnosing business issues. One is informal: you look at some data, talk to some people, and come back with a conclusion about what the underlying issues are. I'm calling this an informal diagnostic, but many would just call it figuring out what is going on.

The alternative is to use a formal diagnostic instrument that works through a well-defined process (often a questionnaire) and scores the organization on a number of scales. You are probably familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, a common diagnostic for individuals. There are a finite number of outcomes from the Myers-Briggs--you end up being categorized as one of 16 types of personality. Organization diagnostics are normally more complex than the Myers-Briggs, but have the same character of slotting situations into one of a finite number of boxes.

Formal diagnostics often generate two strong conflicting emotions. One is the positive sense of scientific certainly. After the diagnostic you “know” that you are an intuitive thinker or you “know” your organization's biggest problem is internal communication.
The other emotion is a sense that there is something false in the diagnostic and that somehow the complex, rich and ambiguous reality you know has been lost. While it is hard to argue with the results, you feel that something's not right.

How should you make sense these conflicting emotions?

An Appreciation of Reality
Informal diagnostics don't generate the same emotions formal ones do; they can suffer from the sense that “Well, that's just your opinion”, but if people don't feel it’s quite right the conclusions are easily adjusted.

Formal diagnostics suffer from the fact that once you've embarked on one the results are hard to ignore. If Myers-Briggs says you're an extrovert, it's hard to argue that you don't belong in a job dealing with people all day, even if you feel it is not really right for you. If an organization finds its biggest weakness is alignment, it is hard to say “Well, we'll just ignore that” and equally hard to resist the consultant's pitch that they just happen to have a three step program to improve alignment.

The crux of the problem is that any given diagnosis only captures a narrow view of reality. Myers-Briggs can give you some insight into personality, but to look at your peer and say “You are an extroverted-intuitive and that's all I need to know” is foolish.

The structure of a formal diagnostic is helpful, but we need to suppress the idea that it is revealing truth in a scientific way. It's providing a helpful insight just as an informal diagnostic does and is not necessarily any more accurate.

The correct approach to the emotions that formal diagnostics generate is not to fall for the “Wow, this is scientific fact” marketing of these tools. Instead, simply say “Hey, there are some good insights here”. If you take that approach then the conflicting emotion that the diagnostic isn't fully reflecting the complexity of the situation ceases to be a problem.

Uh oh
Well, it feels like we nailed the solution to that one: Both informal and formal diagnostics are good, but when you use a formal method treat the result the same way you would an informal result – as a set of insights, not a body of fact.

But there is a problem.

The problem is that once a diagnostic has labelled you it's hard to free yourself of that label. If the diagnostic has said 'alignment' is the biggest problem it is hard to turn around and ignore that by saying it is just one part of the story. Organizations involve many people and the subtlety of your understanding of the situation will be lost when the results come out. All your boss's boss will know is the headline. All they will be asking is “What are you doing about alignment?”

If you are in a wise organization this may not be a problem. For the rest of us, let me propose a general solution: never do a formal diagnostic in isolation. Always have a parallel process of an informal diagnostic that you can present alongside the results of the formal one. If the formal diagnostic suggests Alignment is the number one problem and the informal diagnostic suggests Engagement is the main issue, it leaves the organization free to compose whatever solution makes sense, not walk down the narrow path prescribed by the formal diagnostic. It creates space.

One never has to choose one answer over another: both answers are right, they are not incompatible and they set the stage for a solution. Even if the formal study cost a million dollars and the informal study was just a handful of focus groups, that informal input can be enough to break the bonds a formal study can unwittingly impose.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com


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