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Displaced pain: The similarity between dentistry and business analysis

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 5 min read
X-ray of a person's mouth and teeth

X-ray of a person's mouth and teethI have to admit, I’ve never had a particularly high pain threshold, but recently my ability to deal with pain was seriously tested. After a night out celebrating a friend’s birthday (which might have involved drinking one or two ice-chilled, acidic yet strangely compelling and colourful cocktails), I woke up to the most severe dental pain I’ve ever had the displeasure to endure. Thinking the ice in the cocktails must have caused some sensitivity, I tried to “ride it out”, but it got worse and worse and worse.  Without wanting to wallow in too much drama and hyperbole,  I’d say that it felt like a shark had bitten off the whole left side of my face…


I quickly realised I needed help so I made an emergency appointment to see my dentist.  He examined the affected area, gave me some temporary pain relief, and diagnosed the likely problem as an old filling that may need drilling and replacing. In fact, I might need a dreaded root-canal filling or even an extraction. Scary news indeed! I was sent home to consider my options, taking a veritable cornucopia of painkillers to get me through.  I was due to return in one week to have more treatment.


The importance of holstic analysis and diagnosis

The weekend came. The pain escalated, and became even more severe.  I couldn’t see my regular dentist so I visited another clinic. Here’s the thing: this second dentist examined my whole mouth, not just the area that caused pain. She identified a cavity over the other side of my mouth, and explained how sometimes patients get “referred pain”; that’s pain in one area that is triggered by a problem in a completely different area. She gave a holistic diagnosis, and recommended starting with the least evasive action, filling this cavity, and only working up to root canal or extraction only if absolutely necessary.


This scenario resonated with me. How many projects are progressed in response to acute pain of a “burning platform” where the only option seems to be both drastic and urgent? Yet if the organisation is in pain, has it inadvertently opted for an invasive procedure that might not even be necessary? Knee-jerk reactions lead to unnecessary surgery on our processes, systems and IT. Surgery that might even make the problem worse. An extracted tooth will never grow back.


The symptoms aren’t always near the root cause

In many cases, pain felt in one part of an organisation caused by a root problem elsewhere. It’s easy for stakeholders to jump on an isolated solution in response to pain, much in the same way when the pain was the worst, I would have gladly paid for an extraction to make it stop. However, that would probably have been one of the worst possible decisions I could have made.   On reflection, it was more important to:


  • Gain an holistic understanding of the situation
  • Investigate and eliminate available (and less evasive) options first, before doing something radical and irreversible
  • Seek out the root cause
  • Take the appropriate action once the root cause was identified


Ring any bells?  This sounds rather like many business-focussed problems that I’m sure we all see on projects.   In business, the root cause isn’t always near the symptoms. Holistic and objective analysis is essential. When problems are complex, the most radical or drastic solution might seem desirable (“Let’s just replace the thing” or “Let’s buy something new”).  Of course, Sometimes drastic action is needed, but make sure your organisation knows the real source of the pain before it ‘extracts a tooth’…

To finish off my dentistry story, it turns out I did need a filling replaced and a new filling added.  Yet no root-canal or extraction were needed and I’m pleased to report that the pain has now ceased!


I hope you’ve found this article interesting.  What are your views about the importance of analysing a situation holistically? Do you have any tips, tricks or comments? I’d love to hear from you, please go ahead and add a comment below, and if you like my blogplease subscribe.


About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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