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Causal Analysis


Disciplines > Change Management > Diagnosing change > Causal Analysis

Root causes | Circular causes | See also


An excellent question when analyzing around change is 'why?' Causal Analysis seeks to identify and understand the reasons why things are as they are and hence enabling focus of change activity.

Root causes

The basic principle of causal analysis is to find causes that you can treat rather than treating symptoms (which, as all doctors know, seldom effects a lasting cure). A root cause is the basic reason why something happens and can be quite distant from the original effect.

Ask why five times

The trick with seeking root causes is to keep looking. When you ask 'why' of something, you will get a nearby direct cause. If you keep asking 'why' of each answer, you will eventually get to a cause that you can act on. It is not always five times that you as, but it may well be around this number. The key is just to keep asking until you get to a real 'aha' that you can treat.

Sales figures are down.
Why? Because we are selling less.
Why? Because our customers do not want our products.
Why? Because our competitors have better products.
Why? Because we have not produced good products for a while.
Why? Because in the last change we significantly reduced research investment.

Cause-effect diagram

The Cause-effect Diagram is a simple hierarchical tool that is used to break down cause into a tree-structure, allowing you to follow individual streams of possible cause. It is usually used to support brainstorming of possible causes rather than direct analysis of actual causes.

Circular causes

Many causes are not linear but instead act in circles, much as births lead to population increase which leads to even more births. Understanding circularity allows you to get to the more pernicious problems that are, with linear analysis, difficult to detect.

Systemic cause

In systemic problems, the cause is found in the whole system, with the problem distributed across multiple related causes, all of which conspire together to cause the identified effect.

Cultural problems are often like this, with little bits of behavior adding together to form an overall dysfunction (this is also why cultural change often takes many years).

Vicious spirals and virtuous circles

Circular cause leads to exponential increases or decreases that are very difficult to interrupt. Thus when you are on a downward spiral (often called a 'vicious spiral'), the whole system feeds off itself. Thus loss of sales leads to cutbacks in costs which leads to loss of more sales. Notice also how the same spiral that takes things down can also take them up. Thus increased sales leads to an increase ability to invest in new product research.

See also

Cause-and-effect reasoning, Cause-effect Diagram

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