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From RECL 3P25 Fall 2011 - Group 03 - Problem Tree Analysis

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Problem Tree Analysis Research Technique

problem tree
problem tree


[edit] Definition and Descripion

Problem Tree Analysis is a research method used to analyze the existing situation surrounding a given problem/condition, identify the major problems and the core problem of a situation, and visualize the cause-effect relationships in a Problem Tree diagram.

  • A problem tree project focuses on one or a few core problems. Understanding the core problem and its causes is important if the project is to effectively address the effects of that problem on the community. The problem tree is one method of mapping out core problems, along with their causes and effects, helping project planners to identify clear and manageable objectives.
  • Like any other tree, the problem tree has three parts: a trunk, roots, and branches. The trunk is the core problem. The roots represent the causes of the core problem and the branches represent its effects. Similar the roots of a tree, the causes of the core problem are not always immediately apparent, but if we do not understand the causes there is little we can do to address the problem.
  • Problem Tree Analysis focuses on present issues, rather than apparent, future, or past issues, and are dealt with and identified.
  • When the group is satisfied that the problem tree provides a good overview of the main challenges facing the community, it is time to identify how a project might make a difference. In other words, it is time to turn the problem tree into a solution tree.

Solution Tree

  • For each negative statement, come up with a positive statement that describes a solution to the problem.
  • For example, “People lack access to clean drinking water” could be turned into, “Provide people with access to clean drinking water”.
  • These positive statements provide a basis for selecting project objectives – the specific goals that your project will aim to achieve. Again, focus only on those objectives that the project will realistically address, given the constraints of budget, time frame, and staff.

Good for:

  • Helping people organize their thoughts and perceptions.
  • Exploring the sources of our problems.
  • Pushing participants to develop more complex and deeper explanations of their problems.
  • Laying the ground work for strategic planning.

[edit] Applications

When should the technique be used?

The three main techniques used for Problem and Situational Analysis are:

  • Problem tree analysis workshop with key stakeholders
  • Focus group interviews with key stakeholders
  • Participatory Rural Appraisal

It is used by groups of people who share a common interest or desire to discuss and elaborate on a conflict/issue impacting all individuals. It helps to find solutions by mapping out the anatomy of cause and effects around an issue. Intended for a long term solution not a "quick fix" .

Who should use it?

Problem Tree Analysis is best used in small focus groups where members can collaborate and discuss specific data. Works well with groups who share a past experience and or current concern. Helps organize thought and vision process by incorporating visual cues.

When has the technique been used?

3 real life examples

  • Sam Dear (Brock University Teacher Advisor)
  • DFID (department of international development) design team implementing an HIV/AIDS activity in Kenya (2009)
  • SSWM (sustainable sanitation and water management) - river water quality is deteriorating (2004)

Sam Dear- real life example

What she used the Problem Tree Analysis for:

  • Sam used the problem tree analysis to write up two proposals for CITA funding. Eliminating Degary fever (from misquote bites) from a city in Haiti addressing that a small town in Bolivia did not have enough drinking water

Why she chose to use the problem tree analysis for this research:

  • Her answer: because this approach forces you to think of the root causes and to look at the up stream- down stream effect.Problem tree analysis approach examines a sustainable solution instead of just a quick fix.

[edit] Objectives

  • Used to analyze the root causes of a problem and to identify the primary consequences
  • The tree provides a visual structure for the analysis.
  • The key purpose of this analysis is to try and ensure that ‘root causes’ 

Problem Tree Analysis Relies on

  • Group-based inter-action eg. Workshop format
  • Participation of key stakeholders
  • Process facilitation 
  • Achieving consensus on problems, causes and effects

The approach relying on problem analysis is often described as:

1. Problem analysis: detailed analyzing the problem symptoms and causes

2. Diagnosis: determining in what kind of known category the problem fits

3. Prescription: determining what treatment can be chosen from what is known about this type of problem from scientific knowledge or theories

4. Treatment: applying a prescribed intervention

5. Evaluation: check whether the problem and the symptoms have already diminished or disappeared

These problems are usually so complex that searching for causes of these problems is fruitless. Usually there is no clearly identifiable root cause.

[edit] Procedure

breakdown diagram
breakdown diagram
  • It can help establish whether further information, evidence or resources are needed to make a strong case, or build a convincing solution
  • Present issues - rather than apparent, future or past issues - are dealt with and identified
  • The process of analysis often helps build a shared sense of understanding, purpose and action.

Resources Required

  • Flip chart/white board and marker or chalk board and chalk
  • Sticky notes

Step by Step Procedure

1.List all the problems that come to mind. Problems need to be carefully identified: they should be existing problems, not possible, imagined or future ones. The problem is an existing negative situation, it is not the absence of a solution. Together with the group, choose a starter problem.

2.Draw a tree and write the starter problem on the trunk.

3.Encourage people to brainstorm and determine which problems are “Causes” and which are “Effects.” (Arrange in hierarchy both Causes and Effects, i.e., how do the causes relate to each other - which leads to the other, etc)

4.To focus on the root causes of the problem, discuss the factors that possibly contribute to it. Write these causes on sticky notes.

  • This task is made easier by continually asking the question Why? for each of the causes identified. Keep asking Why? until you have reached the basic root cause of the problem.

5.Follow the same procedure to determine the effects/impact of the problem and write the primary effects on the branches of the tree.

6.Once this is complete compare each cause to each effect to assure that each cause has been paired with an effect.

7.Create a solution tree by assigning each effect with a solution. HOW can we change this from a problem to a possible solution

  • be sure to use current realistic approaches based on resources (time, money, space, etc)

[edit] Technique Strengths

Include root causes think and adhere;

can be easy to read and make connections through the diagram

it’s visual

once the problem is determined it can be turned into a solution tree

it’s grouped into causes and effects

it can determine who is in charge

by fixing one root cause it may take away more than one negative effect

it can include a lot of input from people in the process of determining the causes and effects

it can identify political factors and solutions for each.

This brings several advantages:

1. The problem can be broken down into manageable and definable chunks. This enables a clearer prioritization of factors and helps focus objectives;

2. There is more understanding of the problem and its often interconnected and even contradictory causes. This is often the first step in finding win-win solutions;

3. It identifies the constituent issues and arguments, and can help establish who and what the political actors and processes are at each stage;

4. It can help establish whether further information, evidence or resources are needed to make a strong case, or build a convincing solution;

5. Present issues - rather than apparent, future or past issues - are dealt with and identified; The process of analysis often helps build a shared sense of understanding, purpose and action.

[edit] Technique Limitations

  • Human error
  • It can be done without talking to others
  • Can get lost in the confusion of problems
  • Data can be extensive and overwhelming at first
  • There is never one first answer and because of that people may disagree.

[edit] Tips For Successful Implementation

A few successful tips for implmentation of the Problem Tree Analysis technique include such as having a group of participants with strong opinions of the topic/problem, choose a topic/problem that has a wide variety of statements which allows every participants opinion to be included. Other tip includes making the topic relavent to the participants interests to maximize accuracy, as well as keeping it interesting as the process will go smoother if are participants are actively engaged.

Choosing a group of people who are capable of working well together, and can offer stimulating debates and discussion. Being able to branch out and brainstorm WHY something is a problem and HOW can it be solved (WHAT actions can be taken).

This strategy is great for visual learners. Observing and comparing solutions (effects) to causes and causes to problem.


  • identify a core problem (using more than 1 or 2 problems creates an overly broad problem tree. keep it simple)
  • identify the causes first (why is this a problem in the first place, reasons this problem exists)
  • identify the effects of the problem (what factors evolve from these causes, try and find a effect for each cause)
  • check your logic (does it all make sense. take a step back and review as a group)
  • the solution tree (now that you have identified the core problem(s), the causes of the problem(s), and the effects of the problem(s). branch out and try and find current and reasonable solutions to each effect.

[edit] References

Fikes R.E. & Nilsson N. J. (1971). Strips: A new approach to the application of theorem proving to problem solving. Stanford Research Institute, Cal, USA. Vol 2, No 3-4, pp 189-208. DOI: 10.1016/0004-3702(71)90010-5. 

[edit] External Links[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

[edit] Authors

  • Jill Szewczyk
  • Danielle Rastovac
  • Kyley Stevenson
  • Hillary Bennett
  • Brooke McGill
  • Bianca Kozlowski


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