How to Strike at the Root

Striking at the root centers on finding and fixing root causes, rather than hacking at the branches of the problem with solutions that should work, but don't.

The reason those solutions don't work is

The only way to solve a difficult problem
is to resolve its root causes.

Striking at the root has two main steps: find the root causes, then fix them. The first step makes or breaks your entire project. Get the root causes right and everything else is relatively easy because you are focusing on what matters the most. Get the root causes wrong and no amount of solution cleverness or hard work promoting the solution will work.


Understanding how root causes work

Root causes work like the way sap flows in a tree. Deep down in the roots, water and nutrients are turned into sap. This flows up the roots, up the trunk, along the branches, and to the many leaves on the tree. Each leaf is a symptom.

Root causes work the same as sap. Causal chains run from the root causes all the way up to symptoms. A causal chain is a flow of influence, also known as cause and effect. All problems stem from their root causes.

Tree of causal linksDifficult problems have many symptoms, just as a tree has many leaves. A difficult problem usually has multiple root causes, just as a tree has many roots. The roots of a problem connect to its symptoms with long chains of causal links. Thus:

A problem is a tree of causal links.

When a tree is transplanted, enough of its roots must be carefully dug up and moved with the tree, or the tree will wither or die. To solve a difficult problem, enough of its root causes must be carefully found and resolved, or when the solutions are implemented they will be temporary, partial, or fail altogether.

Click the tree to see how deep most popular solutions to the sustainability problem go. They attempt to solve intermediate causes. Thus they are superficial solutions and tend to not work nearly as well as they should because intermediate causes cannot be changed without changing their causes, which ultimately are the root causes.

But with root cause analysis we can go deep by tracing the causal chain, finding the root causes, and solving them. Click on the tree again to see how deep analysis must go to solve the problem. The analysis must go all the way down the trunk and below the ground to the normally hidden fundamental layer of the problem, so we can find the root causes and resolve them with fundamental solutions.

Visualizing how the tree of causal links works is the key to being able to analyze the sustainability problem and problems like it. Right from the start this ability determines success or failure. So let's take the above tree and rearrange it into a diagram that tells us even more.

In the diagram below the the tree is on the right. Click on it to see or hide the causal chain. Think of the leaves as the problem symptoms. The branches and trunk are the long chains of intermediates causes. The roots of the tree are the root causes of the problem.


The left side of the diagram allows the analytical problem solver to see what matters when doing root cause analysis. The key strategy is to break through the superficial layer (which is easy to see and requires no serious analysis) and penetrate into the fundamental layer of the problem. This is difficult to see, which is what makes a problem difficult. It's the part of the problem that's below ground. The only way to see what's in the fundamental layer of a problem is to dig down deep into the problem with some serious analysis.

Once you've penetrated the fundamental layer you can correctly see the root causes and then, with a little more work, their fundamental solutions. These will usually be surprisingly different from the superficial solutions that were being applied, so when you propose your fundamental solutions you may encounter disbelief and resistance. But if you point to the specific root causes the fundamental solutions are resolving, that disbelief and resistance will melt away, and your solutions will be embraced.

The best part is fundamental solutions can solve the problem because they resolve its root causes. Superficial solutions cannot solve problems because they are directed at intermediate causes. No matter how clever a superficial solution is, or how long its applied, or how much money is poured into promoting it, a superficial solution can never fully and permanently solve a problem. Only root causes can do that.

That's how we can strike at the root.

For how it can be done, see Mastering the Science of Striking at the Root.