Monthly Archives: November, 2015

“Root cause” and solution-focused practice

I haverootcause just started the sixth running of my Solution Focused Business Professional course with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  In the first week, a very interesting question came up from a participant about root cause analysis and what would SF do instead.  I thought you might be interested to read it.

Hi Mark,

I have a question about SF not focusing on root causes of problems (or please correct me if I am mistaken). In intervention research we often look at root causes of problems in order to develop interventions to alleviate social ills. So – if I look at organizations, sometimes there may be a root cause of a problem – such as a mentally unstable leader that leads to significant issues (I know of an organization where the unstable leader would sometimes be rude to major clients in meetings). With SF, I would imagine folks would think of ways to address how to win the clients back, rather than look at the root cause of the problem – i.e., the leader. Likewise, the staff would be creating a lot of extra work having to regain the relationships with clients on an ongoing basis as long as the leader was in his/her position.

Might you speak to how SF would approach the above situation? Thanks so much.

Excellent question!  There are a number of points to be made.

1.  We are sceptical of the whole idea of a ‘root cause’ in complex/social systems.  While this idea works well in mechanical systems, the many inter-relating interactions and dependancies in a complex system mean that trying to find a single cause is a doomed effort – there is so much going on, and it changes all the time so what’s the case today may well be different tomorrow.

2.  Even if you think you’ve found such a root cause, it brings with it an element of blame and accusation.  In your example it’s all the rude leader’s fault.  While this may certainly be a part of the situation, it leads us down a route to thinking that this is the sole cause and that therefore we have to focus on getting the leader to stop being rude. This then appears to be a ‘magic bullet’.  Two practical problems – firstly, the rude leader may well not appreciate this attention (and will probably get ruder, especially towards staff members bringing them this news).  Second and much worse, it takes our attention away from other possibilities, other people and other routes.

3.  SF embraces the ideas of complex systems and emergence – so there are no magic bullets, things emerge a step at a time, and focus on what everyone WANTS as opposed to what is wrong.  So, while there may be a rude leader, what do they and everyone else want?  This takes the inquiry down a completely different line.  So the first step of an SF inquiry on your example would be to gently ask the various people want they want from these client meetings.  It would be very interesting to hear what everyone including the rude leader said!  Then we can go from there.

4.  As we will see in week 4, the idea of a Platform and a ‘customer for change’ is crucial here. Who wants something different?  If the ‘rude leader’ wants something different we can work with them.  If they don’t but others do (such as the staff who have to do extra work) then we work with them.  If the latter, then we start to look at when they get the thing they want (even a little) and what helps to do that.  So, it may be that someone notices that the rude leader is more polite in the afternoons (let’s say) – in which case a small step might be to start to hold more of these meetings in the afternoon and see what happens. 

Cheers, Mark


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