How Do You Diagnose an Organization?

You’ve just been assigned to fix a problem or design a solution for an organization, department or team. Maybe you’ve been brought in as a consultant or joined a cross-functional task force. Regardless, management wants results. Where do you start?

Just like in medicine, the last thing a change practitioner should do is prescribe before diagnosing. You don’t want to “fix” the wrong problem. That usually just makes things worse and hurts your credibility.

So how do you diagnose an organization?

Stethoscope Doctor1Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as you might think. While survey and data analysis have their place, the method I like to start with is the interview. I’ll identify the key leaders who make the management decisions (VPs, directors, managers, etc). Never just one, but several. Then I’ll schedule time with them to get their input.

The First Three Questions

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a set of three questions I always ask to leaders I meet with, whether I’m doing a diagnostic or not. It allows me to cut straight to the chase of how their organization is doing without being overly intrusive. Here they are:

  • What excites you about your organization?
  • What would you like to get to next if you could?
  • What concerns do you have about your organization right now?

With these short questions, I’m able to quickly capture an overview of the passion, strategy and fear of the leader in a relatively pressure-free way. But if I will be responsible for proposing and/or delivering a solution, I don’t stop there.

In graduate school, I read the book How to OD…And Live to Tell About It by William Becker. In it is an organizational diagnostic I’ve come to really appreciate. Below is a sample of the most important questions from Becker that I use and you can use as well.


  • What are people like and what seems to be important to them?
  • What type of person succeeds here? Why?
  • How are people professionally developed?


  • What is the organization’s mission?
  • What are your key organizational goals?
  • What do people perceive they are most rewarded and recognized for doing?
  • What are the top three challenges facing your organization/industry now? Over the next 3-5 years?

Change History

  • What are some of the recent (or current) change initiatives your organization has undergone on over the last few years?
  • What was their purpose? What resulted and how has this impacted your organization today?
  • What were some of the obstacles faced and how were they addressed?


  • In your view, what is the most important thing your company needs to address?
  • What do you want to take on right now? Why haven’t you?


  • How is the executive team composed in your firm? What are they good at (as a team)?
  • What seems to drive decisions here?


  • Are you looking for a pair of hands to tell them what to do, or an expert to tell you what is the problem and provide a solution, or are you looking for a collaborative effort where someone facilitates you and your stakeholder’s discovery of the problem and create solutions together?
  • Is there anything else I should be aware of if I am to be helpful to your organization?

Once you’ve interviewed enough of the leaders to get an accurate assessment of the situation, you have will generally have the information you need to get started. Compile the results, highlight the major themes, and report them back to the leaders you interviewed. Include your recommendations for what needs to be done and how you propose to make it happen – along with their necessary involvement.

Congratulations, you’ve just completed step one – and what some consider the most important step – in the consulting process!

What other questions would you include? Keep in mind that most leaders don’t have time to answer all of your questions!

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.