Cause-Effect-Diagrams (#25)

Problems in the real world often have more than one root cause. Worse, the causes tend to be intertwined and reinforcing (aka vicious circles). It’s easy to get caught in circular thinking, unable to begin implementing any changes. A neat way to overcome this are cause-effect-diagrams:

Henrik Kniberg wrote an excellent description on how to create these diagrams. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, here are the instructions in a nutshell:

  • Take a “problem” that’s currently bugging you as the starting node
  • Go up – Try to find the real problem by repeatedly asking “So what?
    (Your starting node will often turn out to be a midway symptom and not a problem in itself.)
  • Go down – Try to find root causes by repeatedly asking “Why? How come?
  • You can have more than one cause and/or effect per node and may end up with a complex graph
  • Look out for vicious circles; breaking them should help a lot

I’ve done several diagrams and so far, they’ve always helped me:

  • to better understand how everything is related
  • to discover new effects / causes through the methodic approach
  • to find a starting point for changes, when I was paralyzed before

Groups can use a whiteboard, sticky notes and markers like in the photo.

Actually the diagram in the photo is a good example for finding an unexpected cause (and consequently solution):

Our sys admins had “Lack of visibility – The board doesn’t reflect what we do” as a starting point with “Stress” as its ultimate effect. The unexpected cause turned out to be: “No shared understanding of what tasks a story entails”. Transparency and using the board had been the topic of several retrospective and the aspect of “shared understanding” had never been mentioned before. So instead of coming up with a solution centered around the board, the team committed to daily joint task breakdowns to achieve a shared understanding of the stories. 3 weeks later, that had already solved a number of problems! Hooray, for cause-effect-diagrams and the sys admins 🙂

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books