Tips & Tools for Network Instigators: Root Cause Analysis

“The only way to teach people how to truly do it and do it the right way, is to get those ingredients and kitchen tools in front of them and in their hands to use” – Wolfgang Puck

Learning to design and manage networks for social impact effectively is a lot like learning. And one of the most important things in both cooking and in network leadership is using the right tools, in the right way.  In their book, Networks for Social Impact, authors Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper draw on their decades of their own research, original case studies, and a lot of other research on networks to provide network instigators the right tools for the job.

In this new series, the NNSI team will introduce the tools and provide practical advice for using them. The first tool we will unpack: Root Cause Analysis. 

Tools for network instigators

When should Network Instigators use Root Cause Analysis?

The purpose of this tool is to help define the problem. In other words, when networks are trying to instigate change, it can be difficult to set goals and determine how to set up their network without getting to the root or main problem of the issue being addressed. Root Cause Analysis provides a tool to get to this core problem rather than the causes or symptoms that correlate with it—like a doctor addressing the underlying disease rather than the cough.

How does a Network set the stage for Root Cause Analysis?

First, the network instigators must conduct a situational analysis. A situational analysis involves stakeholders coming together to investigate the problems facing their community, review relevant data, and prioritize the most critical issues. This process highlights the issues at hand for further review.

Second, these problems must be prioritized. This is done by clustering problems into groups—either related issues or issues which jointly affect the same area or group of people—and selecting the most pressing and important problems. Once selected, either by necessity, rank, or vote, the most important issues can now be subjected to Root Cause Analysis


What does Root Cause Analysis look like?

There are three primary ways to conduct a Root Cause Analysis: The Five Whys, Fishbone Diagrams, and Root Cause Trees. 

1. The Five Whys 

Best for: Complicated problems and only addressing one group of issues

Not as good for: Multifaceted problems

This method begins by using the steps discussed above to define the problem in one or two sentences. Then, the group takes this problem and asks themselves “why?” five times.

  • Why is it happening?
  • Why is the surface cause happening?
  • Why is the possible root cause happening?
  • Why?
  • Why? 


An example of the Five Why method:

This line of questioning gets past the symptoms and to the core of the problem.

2. Fishbone Diagrams 

Best for: A visual approach and complex wicked problems with unknown/unclear causes

Not as good for: Problems where more research on causes exists and more is known about underlying causes and possible solutions

This process involves placing the larger social issue being addressed in a box to the right. Then diagonal lines are drawn from this box—like dorsal fins of a fish—which explore categories of causes. Then, under each category, underlying causes are identified. This can take as many “dorsal fins” as necessary to explicate the issue in full.

An example Fishbowl Diagram: 

This Fishbone Diagram attempts to find the underlying causes of increasing childhood obesity. The main social issue (increasing childhood obesity) is to the right, and the root causes stem out like fins. The number of fins will be different depending on the social issue. 

3. Root Cause Trees

Best for: Multifaceted problems that have persisted for a long time and generated research interest

Not as good for: Instances where network instigators might want to identify more than just a few underlying problems

To create a Root Cause Tree, a group begins with the overarching apparent problem. Then, several symptoms are identified, and apparent root causes of each symptom are identified creating a tree-like structure.

An example Root Cause Tree:

This Root Cause Tree takes childhood obesity and breaks it down into several layers of root causes. Through creating this tree-like structure, the larger social problem is simplified into its underlying components. 

We identified the root cause! What are the next steps?

The next and final step of Root Cause Analysis is identifying what kind of problem the issue is. This might take experimentation on the part of Network Instigators. The four primary problem types are simple, complex, complicated, and chaotic problems.

Simple Problem

  • Cause and effect of problem are straightforward and distinct
  • Leaders know how to respond
  • Past precedent and best practices guide decision-making
  • Typically can be solved by one organization or a quickly disbanded network

Complicated Problem

  • Cause-effect relationship of problem exists but is not clear
    Problem requires analysis and expert input
    Learning is required.

Complex Problem

  • A step beyond complicated problems
  • Prone to change and require trial and error to determine leadership response
  • Many unknown underlying factors
    Responding networks must take a systems’ view, focusing on aligning organizational resources and approaches
  • Coordinated network response is preferable

Chaotic Problem

  • Turbulent problems
  • Relationships between cause and effect are unknown and changing
  • Require serendipitous networks, not centrally controlled or managed

Once the problem type is identified, network instigators can then respond appropriately

If the issue is a complex or complicated problem, a network solution might be appropriate. If the issue is simple and the solution is easily identifiable and actionable, a singular organization approach would be less costly and more efficient. If the problem is chaotic, a network solution may make the issue worse (Shumate & Cooper 67-8). 

In sum, root cause analysis is a tool to guide network instigators, getting them from a general understanding of the problem to the core of the problem. And, when the core of the issue is identified corrective actions are taken and social change is made.