Problem Tree Analysis

What is Problem Tree Analysis?

A Problem Tree Analysis is a pictorial representation of a problem, its causes, and its consequences. This analysis tool helps the project team get a quick glance at how a range of complex issues contribute toward a problem and how this problem branches out into a set of consequences. Both causes and consequences are fitted into the diagram on a hierarchical preference basis.[1]

Problem Tree Analysis (also called Situational Analysis or just Problem Analysis) helps to find solutions by mapping out the anatomy of cause and effect around an issue in a similar way to a Mind map, but with more structure.

A problem tree analysis:[2]

  • Helps with the planning of a project
  • Provides a guide as to the complexity of a problem by identifying the multiple causes
  • Identifies particular lines of intervention and other factors that may need to be tackled with complementary projects
  • Provides an outline of the project plan, including the activities that need to be undertaken, the goal, and the outcomes of the project.

Problem Tree Example
source: MSP Guide

Variations of Problem Tree[3]

  • Objective Tree: Following the problem tree analysis, it is possible to rephrase each of the problems into positive desirable outcomes – as if the problem had already been treated, the problem can be turned into an objectives tree. In this way, root causes and consequences are turned into root solutions, and key projects or influencing entry points are quickly established. A Force Field analysis (Tool 16) could be a useful next step.
  • Opportunity Tree: Instead of focusing on ‘problems,’ it is possible to use the tree to analyze opportunities. This implies changing the initial question from “what is the problem and what are underlying causes” to “what works well and what are underlying causes.” It can be done after Appreciative storytelling.

Steps in Problem Tree Analysis Process[4]

The problem tree, together with the objective tree and analysis of strategies, is a methodology of three steps for identifying main problems, along with their causes and effects, helping project planners to formulate clear and manageable objectives and the strategies for how to achieve them.
Step 1: Problem Analysis
The problem analysis is the phase in which the negative aspects of a given situation are identified, establishing the cause-and-effect relationship between the observed problems. The problem analysis is of prime importance with regard to project planning since it strongly influences the design of all possible interventions (MDF 2005). The problem analysis includes (EC 2004):

  • Definition of the framework and the subject of analysis.
  • Identification of problems faced by target groups and beneficiaries.
  • Visualization of the problems in the form of a diagram, called a “problem tree,” to help analyze and clarify cause-effect relationships.

Creating a problem tree should ideally be undertaken as a participatory group event using visual techniques, such as flipcharts or color cards, in which identified stakeholders can write their individual problem statements. It is recommended that a workshop should involve no more than 25 participants to provide a fruitful learning environment. The first step of such workshops should be open brainstorming about the problems that stakeholders consider to be a priority. From the problems identified, an individual “starter” problem should be selected. In consultation with the participants, a hierarchy of causes and effects has to be established: problems that are directly causing the starter problem are put below, and problems that are direct effects of the starter problem are put above. All problems are sorted in the same way (using the guiding question “what causes that?”. Once all the problems are in place, these should be connected with cause-effect arrows, clearly showing key links. After this process, the problem tree should be reviewed and validated by the participants (adapted from EUROPEAN COMMISSION 2004).

Cause Effect Problem Tree
source: European Commission 2004

Problem trees do more than just identify the root causes of the problem. They provide a visual breakdown of problems into their symptoms as well as their causes and furthermore create a visual output that can be understood by anyone. The process can be a useful method in building a community’s awareness of the problem, how they and others contribute to the problem, and how these problems affect their lives. This may also be an important step when attempting to build support for any interventions, new techniques, or improved technologies.

Once completed, the problem tree represents a summary picture of the existing negative situation.

Step 2: Objectives Analysis
Analysis of objectives is a methodological approach employed to describe the situation in the future once identified problems have been remedied, depicting the ends and the means in a diagram called an “objective tree.”

Means Ends Objectives
source: European Commission 2004

The negative situations of the problem tree are converted into solutions, expressed as “positive achievements.” For instance, in the shown example of river pollution, “river water quality is deteriorating” is converted into “quality of river water is improved.” These positive achievements are, in fact, objectives and are presented in an objective tree showing the means/ends hierarchy.

Since the negative situations of the problem tree have to be reformulated into positive situations that are desirable and realistically achievable, it is of primal importance that all stakeholders are involved in the discussions giving their feedback. Appropriate consultation will help to consider priorities, assess how realistic the achievements of some objectives might be, and identify additional means that might be required to achieve the desired ends. It might also be necessary to reformulate some of the problems, add new problems, or delete problems that might not be relevant or suitable. Furthermore, an objective tree might show many objectives that cannot all be reached at once, for which choices and priorities will have to be made.

Once completed, the objective tree provides a summary picture of the desired future situation, including the indicated means by which ends can be achieved.

Step 3: Analysis of Strategy
After having decided about the desired future situation, possible interventions have to be selected in order to determine the scope of the project, i.e., what should/can be included within the project.

Purpose Objective Results
source: European Commission 2004

This analytical stage is the most difficult and challenging, as it involves synthesizing a significant amount of information and making a complex judgment about the best implementation strategy to pursue. In practice, a balance has to be found to deal with the different stakeholders' interests, political demands, and practical constraints. However, the potential merits and difficulties associated with addressing problems in different ways have to be fully scrutinized before any detailed design work is undertaken. Typical questions that should be asked and answered are: can/should we tackle all the problems identified? Should we select just a few? Which interventions are more likely to bring about the desired results? What would be more beneficial for the target groups? Are these interventions sustainable in the long term? Are the financial means available? Do we have the technical capacity to implement the actions? (for more detailed information on this issue, (see definition of boundaries]). These and other questions, including environmental, social, and economic issues, as well as policies and the legal framework, will help to rule out those strategies which cannot be covered in this project and those which are realistic and will offer the most benefit for those facing the problems.

Advantages of Problem Tree Analysis[5]

Problem tree analysis is central to many forms of project planning and is well-developed among development agencies. Problem tree analysis (also called Situational analysis or just Problem analysis) helps to find solutions by mapping out the anatomy of cause and effect around an issue in a similar way to a Mind map, but with more structure. This brings several advantages:

  • The problem can be broken down into manageable and definable chunks. This enables a clearer prioritization of factors and helps focus objectives.
  • 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.
  • It identifies the constituent issues and arguments and can help establish who and what the political actors and processes are at each stage.
  • 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.

General Remarks and Practical Advice in Conducting a Problem Tree Analysis[6]

  • Problem tree analysis is best undertaken in a workshop setting, where a variety of stakeholders are brought together. A good representation of stakeholders during the problem tree session is crucial to achieving a shared understanding of the issues. There may be considerable differences of opinion and perceptions between different stakeholders.
  • Conducting a problem tree analysis calls for skilled facilitation as well as plenty of time.
  • It is important that everyone feels comfortable in putting their point of view forward. In some cases, it may be beneficial to break into smaller groups, each producing a separate tree, and then compare results. This could be advisable, for example, where
    • the group taking part in the exercise is large
    • women may be less vocal in front of men
    • the aim is to get a perspective from a particular group, such as young people.
  • Useful materials are flip chart paper, markers, post-it notes or cards, and scotch tape or pins for displaying them. Writing each problem/cause/effect on a separate post-it note or card during the brainstorming session allows for later (re-)arranging in a cause-effect logic.
  • Where cards are very similar, create a single new card to represent them all.
  • There will probably be multiple causes for each effect and multiple effects for each cause. Some cards (such as poverty) may be both fundamental causes and principal effects – in this case, use two cards for the same issue.
  • The importance of a problem is not determined by its position in the problem tree
  • Allow for discussion, debate, and dialogue. A separate flip chart paper might be useful for solutions, concerns, decisions, and other related ideas which result from the discussion. Questions to guide the discussion might include:
    • Does this represent reality? Are the economic, political, and sociocultural dimensions of the problem considered?
    • Which causes and consequences are getting better, which are getting worse and which are staying the same?
    • What are the most serious consequences? Which are of most concern? What criteria are important to us in thinking about a way forward?
    • Which causes are easiest/most difficult to address? What possible solutions or options might there be? Where could a policy change help address a cause or consequence or create a solution?
    • What decisions have we made, and what actions have we agreed upon?
  • Photograph the final problem tree or copy it carefully onto the flip chart paper.
  • Share a copy of the final problem tree with stakeholders

See Also

Six Thinking Hats
Metaplan Method
Mind Mapping
SHARP (Structured, Holistic Approach for a Research Proposal)
Cause and Effect Analysis Brainstorming