Problem tree

Analyse and visualise the causes and consequences of complex problems.

Problem tree analysis is a structured way to identify the root causes of complex problems. It can help you explore your research problem with other researchers and stakeholders before you define your exact research question(s).

Building a problem tree with other researchers and stakeholders can reveal differences in perspectives on what the 'real' problem is and its causes. It is useful for refining research questions, highlighting what knowledge and disciplines you might need in a project, identifying key stakeholders and helping see your pathways to impact.

Problem trees are frequently used at the start of a research project to refine a research question. The technique can also be used during the project to identify potential solution areas.

The problem tree is best developed in a workshop with a medium sized group (up to ten people), and lasting at least two to three hours to leave time for discussion. The following steps are a guide for developing the problem tree.

Ask participants to write down what they think the core issue is that you are trying to solve.

Share and discuss these and decide on a central problem. This will form the Problem Tree trunk.

Ask participants to pair up and discuss "What are the impacts or consequences of the core problem?"

Record one impact per Post-it. Arrange the impacts on the wall branching out from the problem. Remind participants to consider social, political, and economic consequences.

Ask the participants, "What are the impacts or consequences of your previous answers?". Repeat a few times.

Consolidate and group closely related consequences.

Switch the focus to the root causes. Ask participants to record "Why has this problem occurred?".

Consolidate the new Post-it notes and position them below the trunk.

Discuss the causes and then ask the participants, "What factors underlie your root causes?". Repeat a few times.

Consolidate and group closely related causes.

Based on the problem tree analysis and discussion, refine your problem definition.

Further reading

This presentation contains material from a training session describing how to use problem trees (PDF).

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