Tools for Getting Real with Your Giving, Part 2: Root Cause Analysis

Uncategorized Sep 22, 2022

Root Cause Analysis: A Practical Way to Apply System Thinking In Your Giving 

In the first post in this series we looked at systems thinking as a key way to unravel the complexity of real world challenges. By helping to illuminate deeper systems at play, unexpected feedback loops, and other counterintuitive dynamics, systems thinking helps us gain clarity as change agents. This is not a matter of subscribing to ideologically driven articles of faith, but rather of pragmatic reflection on how the systems around us actually function, whatever their stated purpose.

So why aren't more donors and their teams already using systems thinking?  One reason is that the tools for applying it have often been presented in a very dense, challenging fashion. This causal loop diagram global fish stocks is an example.

  There’s deep insight there, but it looks a lot like a bowl of spaghetti to the untrained eye. Learning to understand, much less construct, the causal loop diagrams presented in systems thinking textbooks is much like learning a new language. It can be very rewarding but nobody pretends it’s easy.

As a simpler alternative for getting the benefits of systems thinking in your giving, In this post we'll walk through a simple, straightforward approach that you can use on a practical basis with just a fraction of the time and effort required to master formal systems mapping.

8 Steps for Using Root Cause Analysis To Inform Your Giving

This step-by-step guide seeks to provide a clear and practical process that can be applied both by individuals and by groups working together. 

  1. Begin by brainstorming ways to define the problem in terms of a consistent outcome that you and other key stakeholders don’t want. Here we are using systems thinking, but we are starting with the system’s outputs first. We are not worrying about trying to list all its components or their interconnections at this time. This is often the simplest way to begin understanding how a system works at a holistic level. Indeed, the best place to start when engaging with any system is carefully observing its actual behavior rather than watching for what it is “supposed” to do. 
  2. Evaluate the list of brainstormed problems and determine which one comes closest to the thing you are really trying to resolve and improve. At this stage, you want to look for the root problem; you are looking for something your philanthropic efforts can fix that will unlock a cascade of benefits and will not immediately create new problems. Also, express the problematic outcome you have identified in “human-centered” terms—how is this negative outcome expressed in terms of the experience of those closest to the problem?  
  3. Now it’s time to get to the whiteboard. Right in the middle, write out the root problem statement as a sentence with both a noun and a verb and draw a box around it. For example: “The number of students in our state who are able to attend innovative, safe, and engaging schools that they love barely grows each year, while the number of students who attend unsafe, boring, and substandard schools that they have no emotional attachment to remains persistently high.”
  4. Read the sentence you just drew a box around and ask yourself why this is happening and what is the cause? Write the first answer that comes to mind as a sentence with a noun and a verb. Put a box around it and draw an arrow from the first box to the second one. Now, look at the second box again and ask yourself why is this happening? What is the deeper cause? What is the deeper cause of this deeper cause?  
  5. Keep drilling down, recording your answers. Do this at least five times to get as far down to the bedrock issue as you can. You will likely notice that as you progress, you identify some “Why’s” that are linked back to earlier “Why’s” or even the root problem statement itself in a feedback loop.   This is shown in upward looping arrows in the example diagram below. This is a good thing, because feedback loops are powerful places on which to focus your intervention in a system. 
  6. As this map begins to take shape, start looking for individuals or entities who seem to come up repeatedly or in multiple boxes. Keep a running list of all the nouns (individuals and entities) that are playing a role as actors in the answers to your successive why’s. In systems thinking language, these are the “components” of the system.
  7. Keep track of the verbs that show up in your boxes. In systems thinking language, these are the clues to the “interconnections” of the system. If you were making a formal causal loop diagram, there would be only nouns in your boxes. Verbs allow you to explicitly narrate key actions and interconnections that drive the system’s behavior and they substitute for all kinds of specialized symbols that are used in a formal systems map. 
  8. Very often, you can gain significant insight into promising leverage points for intervening in a system simply by sketching it out on a whiteboard. You can now “see” significant elements or even the whole thing all at once. This is a big upgrade from trying to tell yourself the story just with words. Looking at this emerging sketch, you are now better positioned to choose a point of leverage. Disrupting feedback loops is one powerful way to get a system to behave differently. Another way to maximize your leverage is to intervene as close as possible to the root cause. This way, you won’t need to worry as much about intermediating factors diluting the positive force of your intervention. 


Below  is an example of this method, applied to the root problem statement: “High quality, student-centered new schools grow slowly while low-quality schools easily persist.” Click here to download a full size version.  Starting with this problem statement and asking “Why?” multiple times eventually leads to factors that loop back up to help explain the problem statement itself. There’s a good chance you can find powerful systemic leverage points related to whatever is in the boxes where the feedback arrows originate, or even a step or two below them in the chain of why’s.



A Word of Caution: Reason Carefully!

Root cause analysis can be a very powerful and relatively quick way to put the tools of systems thinking to work for you, but it isn’t infallible. First, the results of a root cause analysis exercise are only as good as your reasoning. So, reason carefully and be honest. It is often helpful to write out the assumptions you are making at each step and pressure test them for plausibility. Likewise, root cause analysis can lead you astray if you’re not wary of your own blind spots, groupthink, and other cognitive biases.

This is why the next post in this series is about how to step up our critical thinking skills!


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