Image of tree with deep roots

Root Cause Analysis

Systems Strategies


In this activity participants will focus on a problem and discover the range of causes. It enables groups to explore systemic problems that contain multiple issues. This activity does not necessarily result in solutions, but can be used to begin identifying solutions.

Root Causes Analysis is a Popular Education technique that helps groups develop a shared analysis of the issues they seek to address. Building a share analysis helps groups establish a sense of belonging and build trust by determining how a group understands and analyzes social justice issues. By establishing and agreeing on an analysis it lays a foundation for how the group will decide to act.

Root Causes Analysis assumes that systems and events are interrelated. An action in one area triggers an action in another, and another, and so on. By tracing back these actions, you can discover where the problem started and how it grew into the symptom you’re now facing.

You’ll usually find three basic types of causes:

  • Physical causes – Tangible, material items failed in some way (for example, a car’s brakes stopped working).
  • Human causes – People did something wrong, or did not do something that was needed. Human causes typically lead to physical causes (for example, no one filled the brake fluid, which led to the brakes failing).
  • Organizational causes – A system, process, or policy that people use to make decisions or do their work is faulty (for example, no one person was responsible for vehicle maintenance, and everyone assumed someone else had filled the brake fluid).

Root Causes Analysis looks at all three types of causes. It involves investigating the patterns of negative effects, finding hidden flaws in the system, and discovering specific actions that contributed to the problem. This often means that Root Causes Analysis reveals more than one root cause.

This module references the issue ‘Poverty’ as an example to run through with your group. However, if you know your group is interested in a different issue such as the environment, or Indigenous Rights, etc, you can alter the activity to reflect that.

Participants see the range of factors contributing to an issue and decide on one to take action. Presenting factors are the easiest to tackle, but don’t have as much impact as Root Causes. Root Causes are harder to tackle but will create the most impact. 

  1. Introduce the question that you would like the group to identify the root cause of and share a common analysis of.  ex.) “If hunger is a symptom of poverty, what are its root causes?”
  2. Ask everyone in the room to pair up with someone they don’t know well and introduce themselves. Ask the pairs to briefly brainstorm an issue they think is part of poverty in their community. 
  3. Ask pairs to share with the group the issues they think are a part of poverty in their community. Write everything down on chart paper or on the board.
    • Go to each pair and ask for one issue. Continuing asking until you have all of the issues the group has thought of.
    • Ask the group if they have any issues to add after hearing from everyone.
    • Remember: in brainstorming every idea is okay, don’t judge or edit ideas, but you can clarify an issue someone presents.
  4. Introduce the group drawing exercise. Ask them to draw a picture of a plant to connect all the brainstorm issues to poverty. They will pick each issue from the board and decide if they see it as:
    • Presenting: symptoms, usually experienced individually. For example when sick you may present as having a fever that can be treated with a quick solution like Tylenol. But not until you investigate further can you understand the underlying illness that is causing the fever and fully address the problem.
    • Perpetuating – factors that perpetuate the issue. In the case of the fever, perpetuating issues could be lack of sleep, stress, or poor diet. They connect and perpetuate the effects of the root cause.
    • Root Cause – issues that exist at a societal or structural level and directly cause the issue at hand. In the case of the fever, the root cause of this symptom could be the underlying illness that needs to be identified, diagnosed, and treated.
    • Draw a flower on the board as an example and label it with two or three sample presenting, perpetuating, and root cause issues. Ask for suggestions of how to categorize the issues. 
    • Tell the participants they can add anything they need (bugs, rock, soil, thorns, clouds) to illustrate their analysis.   
  5. Ask participants to form groups of 4-5 people. Give each group colouring instruments and chart paper. 
    • Ask them to draw a picture of a plant that connects the issues on the board. Tell them to take some time deciding what to draw and how it represents the issue they are analyzing. 
    • Ask them to label each part of their drawing so that the larger group can understand their representation. 
    • Let groups know it’s alright to not have complete consensus, it’s okay to put something in the picture that shows differences in opinion.
  6. After everyone has completed their drawing, ask a representative of each group to hang their picture on the wall. Give each representative 2-3 minutes to present their picture. Others can ask questions to clarify the meaning of the picture but save the main discussion until all pictures have been presented.


  1. What are the similarities between the pictures?
  2. What are the differences? 
  3. What have you learned about the nature of the issue? 
  4. What feelings arose as you did this activity? 
  5. Why do you think we looked at the different factors of the problem (presenting, perpetuating, root)?
  6. When thinking of our action plan, which aspect (perpetuating, presenting or root) of the problem do you think is most beneficial to tackle the problem?
  7. How can we take these learnings to our action plan?

The above activity results with the identification of root causes and a discussion of the impact of systemic issues. It does not bring your group to identifying solutions. You can continue the activity to look at solutions if your group is at this step. 

  • After the debrief, ask participants to return to their drawings and groups. Ask them to focus on a single or few root causes.
  • Guide them to identify and recommend solutions by asking the following questions: 
    • What can you do to prevent the problem from happening again?
    • How will the solution be implemented?
    • Who will be responsible for it?
    • What are the risks of implementing the solution?
  • Give the group time to discuss their answers and optionally record on an additional piece of chart paper.
  • Bring the group together for a final time to share their solutions. Discuss next steps for implementing solutions. 



Mind Tools

Root Cause Analysis