Problem Analysis

Problem Analysis


Funded projects are usually proposed to address and/or solve identified problems. Problem analysis therefore involves identifying the overriding problem and establishing the causes and effects related to that problem. A key element of this analysis will ensure that “root causes,” not just the symptoms of the problem, are identified and subsequently addressed in the project design. Projects that only address the effects of the problem, and not its underlying causes, are unlikely to produce sustainable benefits. One important tool for identifying your project’s overriding problem and its root causes is the “problem tree.” Click here [BROKEN LINK!!] to see a simplified example of a problem tree.

Some important suggestions for creating problem trees

  1. •Involve stakeholders who can contribute relevant technical and local knowledge

  2. •Complete several problem tree exercises with different stakeholder groups, to help determine different perspectives and differing priorities

  3. •Recognize that the process is as important as the product. The exercise should be presented as a learning experience for all those involved, and as an opportunity for different views and interests to be presented and discussed. However, don’t expect from all stakeholders complete agreement about the problems and their relative importance

  4. •Recognize that the product (the problem tree diagram) should provide a simplified but nevertheless robust version of reality

  5. •Aim for simplicity. If the exercise is too complicated, it is likely to be less useful in providing direction to subsequent steps in the analysis

Before constructing the problem tree

  1. •Clarify the scope of the investigation or analysis. If you have not been involved at the very beginning of the project-planning process, understand that others will have already identified (at least to some extent) the major problems the proposed project will address. This understanding will help you focus and structure the direction of the analysis. You will not want, or be able, to deal with a limitless range of problems.

  2. •Inform yourself further. Collect and review existing background information on the major issue(s) of concern. Are you clear what the major issues are or are likely to be?

  3. •Identify the group(s). Determine whom you need to bring together to ensure the group is well informed and can help to analyze and discuss the major issues that the analysis will focus on? For example, if you are addressing a health and sanitation problem that might require a water supply as part of the solution, make sure that you have available to join you a water supply engineer and an environmental health officer (among others). Also, be sure to involve community representatives that you believe would be willing and able to contribute to this kind of exercise. A representative and technically competent group is required to help fully identify, analyze, and organize ideas. Participants need to be informed to be useful and productive. They should know why they are doing the analysis, what the process involves, and what information they are expected to contribute.

Constructing the problem tree

1. Identify and list the main problems

  1. •Explain the purpose of the exercise and the context within which it is taking place–e.g., preparation of a primary health care project.

  2. •Explain the problem tree method and the input expected from participants.

  3. •Provide some examples of the cause and effect relationship before starting, emphasizing the importance of identifying root causes.

  4. •Using contributions from the group, list all the negative statements about the situation you are analyzing. This can be undertaken as a brainstorming session.

  5. •Print each problem statement in clear language on a card and display it on some suitable wall space.

2. Identify the overriding problem

  1. •Through discussions, identify a consensus overriding problem–the one that appears to be linked to most negative statements. Print a precise definition of the overriding problem on a card (if the existing statement requires further clarification). Display the card on a wall (or on the floor) so that the whole group can clearly see it

3. Identify cause and effect 

  1. •Place the negative statement cards in their proper position within the “problem bundle” (causes/problem/effects) according to whether they are “causes”—that is, leading to the overriding problem, or “effects”—that is, resulting from the overriding problem. Continue until all causes are below the overriding problem and all effects are above the overriding problem.

  2. •Identify constraints. At any stage in the exercise, those statements considered to be unclear or too general should be more clearly specified, discarded, or moved to a category called “constraints.” Constraints are statements that are clear but very general and which not only affect the existing problem bundle but would apply to many other problem bundles. In identifying constraints, ask yourself if the statement is one that can be addressed by a project-based solution. If not, it is a constraint; it is not within the “scope” of your project. Examples of constraints include institutional corruption, lack of government revenue, and high population pressure. If necessary, you will return to the constraints later, when you conduct a risk analysis. To keep the problem tree focused and manageable, move all the constraints to the side of the problem tree.

  3. •Specify the relationships among causes and effects. Once you are comfortable that you’ve identified the overriding problem and its causes and effects, specify the relationships among them. Choose any cause or effect and ask, ‘‘What causes that?’’ and “”What effect is produced by that?” This process will inevitably result in your identifying additional causes and effects. Now, draw lines between the the statements indicating their causal relationships. Draw vertical links to show cause-effect relationships and horizontal links to show joint causes and combined effects.

  4. •Review. After you have identified the relationships, pause to review, and revise.

4. Check the logic

  1. •At each stage, invite participants to move the cards—that is, to suggest or hypothesize other relationships. When you have placed all cards, review the structure to ensure that related streams of cause and effect are close to each other on the problem tree. 

  2. •Choose one of the cards at the top line of your problem tree, and work back through the tree by asking, ‘‘What leads to or causes that?’’ in order to check the logic or completeness of your cause-effect structure.

  3. By clicking here [BROKEN LINK!!], you can see an example of a completed problem tree involving a project for a U.S. Community College.