Dig Before You Decide

Eager to act fast, entrepreneurial companies too often ignore the root of problems. Take a lesson from the National Parks Service

Entrepreneurial companies make fast decisions. And most of the time, that counts in their favor. But if we don't take care, we can spend a lot of time, effort, and money chasing solutions that merely mask the symptoms without diminishing the real problems. A key sign of a company achieving a transition from entrepreneur-centric to a real organization: when it begins the hard work of identifying a handful of root issues facing the company, which if addressed will best leverage its future potential.

A good way to identify root issues in your business is to keep asking: "Why?"

A few years ago National Parks managers noticed the Jefferson Memorial was crumbling at an alarming rate. When they asked why, they found out it was being washed far more often than other memorials. For most organizations, the analysis would stop here. The solution is clear, right? Adjust the cleaning schedule to match those of the other memorials.


  Unfortunately, that solution would have only led to a very dirty Jefferson Memorial. Because when Parks managers asked about the reason for the frequent washings, they found it had an exceptionally large amount of bird droppings deposited on it every day (no, this isn't a metaphor -- it really happened). What's the solution now? Erect scarecrows? Declare open season on pigeons?

Luckily, National Parks managers kept inquiring. And when they asked why the birds seemed to soil Jefferson at rates higher than they did so to Kennedy or Lincoln, they discovered the Virginian's memorial harbored an incredibly large population of spiders upon which the birds were feeding. And the population of spiders had exploded because of an abundance of midges (tiny aquatic insects) in and around the Memorial.

By now, you have the routine down. When Parks managers asked why so many midges congregated on the Jefferson memorial, they learned what any fly-fisherman finds out his first day on the river: Midges are stimulated to emerge and mate by a unique quality of light (for the rivers of my home state of Utah, it usually falls between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a cloudy day).


  It just so happens park managers were inadvertently creating this unique quality of brightness by turning the lights on the memorial just before dusk. This one variable caused the whole chain of events -- lots of midges, lots of spiders, lots of bird droppings, lots of effort on the part of the cleaning crews, and finally, the crumbling of the statue.

The solution ended up being pretty simple, and actually saved the Parks Department money: Just wait until dark to turn on the lights.

Ridiculing the inanities of government decision-making has turned into something of a national pastime, but let's give it credit for getting it right this time. I shudder to think what might have resulted had the problem been assigned to some of the entrepreneurial companies I know -- companies that move so fast they find it hard to stop and think deeply about root causes. My guess: They would have called task forces charged with simultaneously formulating new detergent formulas, spreading bird poison around the memorial (later ingested by children and pets), and designing intricate spider traps.

Of course, I'm not suggesting entrepreneurial companies should slow down. Their ability to react quickly can enable them to better position themselves against deeper-pocketed foes. But eventually, entrepreneurial companies do need to develop a skill for getting to the root of an issue. As they grow and become more complex, the companies will surpass the abilities of all but the most ingenious entrepreneurs. That means founders need to "clone" themselves and hone their skills to get to root causes. Most important, they need to teach people to keep asking: "Why?"

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